Author Archives: Margo Servison

Black Birders Week: A Step Towards a More Inclusive Birding and Science Community

May 31 to June 5, 2020 marked the first ever Black Birders Week, a five-day virtual event to raise awareness and highlight the need for action surrounding the racism and discrimination Black individuals face in nature spaces. Unlike their white counterparts, black individuals face additional challenges that can prevent full enjoyment of the outdoors; challenges that are rooted in systemic and historical racism that manifests today in unconscious and conscious biases against black individuals. These challenges often result in low representations or exclusion of people of color in nature and outdoor activities. Black Birders Week sparked a national discussion and the organizers, a group called the BlackAFinSTEM collective, hope that the result of this increased awareness and understanding of the black perspective will lead to a normalization of people of color in birding, nature, and science. 

The idea for the five-day-long virtual event was conceived in response to the alarming racist incident recorded in Central Park between Christian Cooper, an avid Black birdwatcher and member of New York City Audubon board of directors, and a white woman who was weaponizing race as a scare tactic against Cooper.  Seeing the national response, organizers saw this as an opportunity to acknowledge that the experience of Christian Cooper was not uncommon for Black people in nature, and although racism manifests itself in various ways, there are things everyone can do to support a more diverse and welcoming outdoor community for all. 

Each day of the event had a different online experience. Below are posts from Twitter and Facebook that highlights the week’s activities and participants experience.  

Day 1: #BlackInNature celebrated Black nature enthusiasts around the world debunking the stereotype that black people do not enjoy nature. 

Day 2: The #PostaBird challenge asked people to share their favorite bird photos and facts. 

Day 3: #AskABlackBirder featured a two-hour Q&A with Black Birders   

Day 4: The #BirdingWhileBlack livestream discussions offered a space for Black birders, including Dr. J. Drew Lanham, Jason and Jeffrey Ward, Corina Newsome, and Kassandra Ford, to share their love for birds and their experiences—both positive and negative—being and working in natural spaces. (view Session 1 and Session 2).  

Day 5: #BlackWomenWhoBird increased visibility and representation. 

Key takeaway from Black Birders Week

Birding and Nature are for Everyone, Everywhere 

Birding and being in nature are typically thought to be rejuvenating, fun, relaxing, and peaceful, but people of color cannot always fully enjoy these feelings because of an underlying sense of “otherness” or not belonging. In some cases, they experience racism both blatant and subtle. The livestream sessions with Black birders were particularly eye-opening because each and every person on the stream could recount a time where they: 

  • Felt unsafe going to a certain area (or even an entire state) to bird because they feared someone would report a “suspicious” black person or their safety would be otherwise threatened because of the color of their skin. 
  • Felt out of place in a group of other birdwatchers because they were the only person of color and the others in the group seemed amazed by them being there. 
  • Experienced outright racism from police or other individuals. 
  • Made sure to be obvious that they were birdwatching by raising their binoculars or wearing nerdy bird-themed clothes to reduce suspicion. 

It is unacceptable that this is a reality for so many bird and nature enthusiasts. Birds and nature are for everyone to enjoy and study regardless of the color of their skin.  

You Can Make A Difference

Learn more about the discrimination and racism people of color face when they are in natural spaces, at science conferences, and in their lives. 

Bobolinks Are Thriving On Protected Fields

A Bobolink male and female with food for their nestlings on a field protected by The Bobolink Project (video by Allan Strong, UVM).

The bird surveys of the fields protected by The Bobolink Project are just about done, and the Bobolinks are currently busy tending to their young. Our partners in Vermont, where the majority of the Bobolink Project fields are, report that there are a lot of fledglings on the fields and that overall numbers are looking good this year (more on this in September).

This year, thanks to our awesome donors, The Bobolink Project was able to protect 995 acres of grassland habitat in Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine, and New York—the most we’ve ever protected in a single year! The 22 landowners who were accepted into the program will receive financial compensation (at the rate of $50/acre) in August for delaying mowing on their fields and therefore allowing these birds to successfully raise their young. Our Bobolink Project landowners care about grassland birds, but need a little financial help to do so. Hay cut early in the season is more valuable than that cut later in the summer and The Bobolink Project compensation helps make up the difference.

Protecting More Than Bobolinks

The program is called “The Bobolink Project” because Bobolinks are more widespread and easier to see than other birds that nest in grasslands. Many other species also benefit from the protection of grassland habitat through the program. Song Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, and others have been spotted nesting on the fields. Excitingly, a Sedge Wren was found singing on one of the Bobolink Project fields this summer. Sedge Wrens are endangered in New England and a rare sight.

Sedge Wren on Bobolink Project field (photo by Allan Strong, UVM)

Help Us Permanently Protect Grassland Birds At Patten Hill

In addition to running The Bobolink Project, Mass Audubon also permanently protects natural land for wildlife and people. Mass Audubon has the opportunity to protect 67 acres at Patten Hill, which is adjacent to Mass Audubon’s High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary in Shelburne Falls, MA. Of those 67 acres, 40 acres are grassland habitat with nesting Bobolinks. Protecting the property will also result in more than 1,000 acres of connected protected natural land.

Mass Audubon needs to raise $442,000 to acquire Patten Hill and we’re almost halfway there. Give today to help us protect this habitat for birds and other wildlife.

What We Like to Watch, Read, and Listen to About Nature

As our science staff have been spending more time at home, they’ve been reminded of all of their favorite nature-themed videos, podcasts, radio shows, tv shows, movies, and books, and have found new ones to enjoy as well. Check these out when you find yourself needing something to do.

Podcasts and Radio Shows

  • Ologies: Each week science correspondent and humorist Alie Ward sits down with a professional “-ologist” to ask smart people stupid questions. Episodes range across a wide variety of topics from ornithology (birds), mycology (fungi), and chiropterology (bats), to topics you may have never known existed like ferroequinology (trains) and vexillology (flags)!
  • Wild Ones Live: Mass Audubon’s Director of Conservation Science, Jeff Collins, heard this late one night driving home from the airport, and says, “it’s the strangest, most hopeful audio experience about wildlife conservation.” Author Jon Mooallem, performs excerpts from his book “Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America” with musical accompaniment.
  • The Natural Experiment: An episode from 99% Invisible about how the COVID shutdown is opening opportunities for scientific research (ex: listening to humpback whales without the sounds of boats competing)
  • Living on Earth: Living on Earth with Steve Curwood is the weekly environmental news and information program distributed by PRX. The show is located at the School for the Environment at UMass Boston.
  • Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds: Talkin’ Birds is a live and interactive radio show about wild birds and the beauty of nature. Their mission is to encourage appreciation of our natural world and to promote the preservation and protection of our environment.
  • Mardi Dickinson’s Bird Calls Radio: a podcast with interviews of well-known birders on a wide range of birding topics and subjects.
  • Weekly Bird Report for the Cape and Islands: Mass Audubon’s Mark Faherty gives the weekly bird report for the Cape and Islands covering bird migration, unusual nest sites, and other interesting bird facts.
  • VCE’s Outdoor Radio: Our friends at Vermont Center for Ecostudies provide entertaining audio rambles through the forests, fields, and wetlands of our neighbor to the north. 
Jeff Collins, Director of Conservation Science, enjoys one of his favorite podcasts while keeping an eye out for birds.

Videos, TV Shows, and Movies

  • Round Planet:  If you like BBC’s Planet Earth and want to bust a gut laughing like the hyenas and kookaburras, check out this BBC show. Award-winning writers combine factually accurate comedy and incredible natural history footage to tell amazing stores of wildlife around the world.
  • Trees with Don Leopold– Always wanted to learn more about trees and how to identify them? Check out these short videos with Dendrologist Don Leopold as he introduces you to trees found in the northeast.
  • Learn How to Draw A Chickadee from David Sibley
  • True Facts About The Owl: Learn some fun facts about owls.
  • Stuff* Birders Say and Stuff* Nonbirders Say to Birders: birders and friends of birders alike will find these videos hilariously true. (*this is a replacement for another word starting with “S”)
  • Nature Moments: Nat Wheelwright, a Maine Audubon board member, has created a series of videos about the natural world.
  • Night On Earth: A docuseries that uses night-vision camera technology to show nocturnal wildlife around the globe (available on Netflix).
  • Dancing with Birds: A documentary that follows birds of paradise as they try to attract mates in elaborate ways (available on Netflix).
  • Our Planet: Experience our planet’s natural beauty and examine how climate change impacts all living creatures in this ambitious documentary of spectacular scope (available on Netflix).

Books

There are, of course, many books that we could recommend, but for now we’ve focused on a few that are available as eBooks since libraries and many bookshops are closed.

  • Birder murder mysteries by Steve Burrows: Director of Bird Conservation, Jon Atwood, has been enjoying these fun books lately as a way to relax!
  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren: In this memoir, professor and geobiologist Dr. Hope Jahren beautifully weaves stories from her childhood and research to explore life as a woman in science, passion and curiosity, and the incredible secret lives of plants.
  • Wild by Cheryl Strayed: After her mother dies, 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed sets out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail with almost no experience. Based on true events from her journal, Strayed writes a story that puts you right alongside her on those 2,500 miles.
  • The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner: Two scientists, Peter and Rosemary Grant, have spent twenty years studying the finches of the Galapagos Islands and proving just how strong Darwin’s theory of evolution is.
  • Birding without Borders by Noah Strycker: Traveling to 41 countries in 2015 with a backpack and binoculars, Noah Strycker became the first person to see more than half the world’s 10,000 species of birds in one year.
  • A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman: Diane Ackerman’s lusciously written grand tour of the realm of the senses includes conversations with an iceberg in Antarctica and a professional nose in New York, along with dissertations on kisses and tattoos, sadistic cuisine and the music played by the planet Earth.
  • Golden Wings & Hairy Toes: Encounters with New England’s Most Imperiled Wildlife by Todd McLeish: A series of well-written and informative essays about creatures including, North Atlantic Right Whale, Bicknell’s Thrush, Indiana Bat, Golden-winged Warbler, Canada Lynx, Roseate Tern, and the Ringed Boghaunter dragonfly. 

Coastal Waterbird Program 2017 Field Recap

Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program protected threatened coastal birds through management and education at 194 sites along 162 miles of the Massachusetts coastline in 2017.  A staff of 56 shorebird monitors and trainees installed protective fencing and signage, monitored nesting activity, provided educational opportunities for beachgoers, and engaged landowners in coastal habitat protection.

Piping Plover and chick © Matt Filosa

Protecting Piping Plovers

State abundance of Piping Plover increased to 657 pairs (preliminary data) in 2017 (649 pairs in 2016). Reproductive success throughout the state was poor, and lower than 2016, with a statewide average of approximately 1.0 chicks fledged per nesting pair compared to 1.44 chicks fledged/pair in 2016.  The estimate for sustainable reproduction in Piping Plovers is 1.24 fledged chicks/pair per year. Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program protected 216 pairs of Piping Plovers (about 33% of the MA population, and roughly 12% of the Atlantic Coast Population estimated at 1,800 pairs).  Predation, both avian and mammalian, limited productivity on Mass Audubon monitored beaches this season (51% of all known egg losses were attributed to predation), making this the greatest known cause of egg loss.  Overwash was the second highest cause of known egg loss at 38%.

American Oystercatcher with chick © Phil Sorrentino

Terns and Oystercatchers Too

A total of 132 sites were surveyed for tern species; 1,132 pairs of Least Terns (38% of the MA breeding population in 2017) were protected by the Coastal Waterbird Program on 41 sites.  American Oystercatcher abundance in Massachusetts decreased slightly to approximately 186 breeding pairs (approximately 190 in 2016). Forty-five pairs were observed breeding on Mass Audubon protected sites, approximately 24% of the state population, and 47% of nesting attempts were successful in hatching eggs.

Least Tern on nest © Brad Dinerman

The Coastal Waterbird Program continued its work on staging Roseate Terns conducting a prey abundance study at several sites on the outer Cape in late summer.  Our work shows the importance of Cape Cod staging sites in the annual cycle of endangered Roseate Terns—especially in providing habitat to newly-fledged birds undergoing their first 5,000 mile migration to South America.

Turkey Trouble?

Got turkey on the mind? Wild Turkeys represent one of the most successful conservation comeback stories in Massachusetts. Due to habitat loss and hunting, there were no Wild Turkeys in Massachusetts between 1851 and 1972. In 1972 the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife worked to reintroduce Wild Turkeys in Massachusetts. The 37 turkeys that were released in 1972 started the resurgence of the population that now numbers more than 20,000.

As you prepare your turkey for Thanksgiving, you’ll likely encounter Wild Turkeys in your backyard and neighborhood. While turkeys are big, they are usually not aggressive towards humans. Our own Wayne Petersen addresses what to do if you should encounter a fearless turkey:

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday with your friends and family!

Another successful year for The Bobolink Project

Bobolink © Allan Strong

We are proud to share a final report on what The Bobolink Project accomplished during the summer of 2017. But before we share the results, we first and foremost thank our donors. With their financial support, conservation interest, and promotional efforts, The Bobolink Project would not exist. This is very much a grassroots conservation effort—pun intended—and we are deeply appreciative of our donors’ support.

We also thank the farmers who applied to and participated in the project. Without them the habitat for grassland birds would not exist. We are glad that they are conscious of the birds on their fields and that they are willing to participate in a solution that allows them to grow a “crop” of grassland birds without compromising their financial stability.

Donations and Farms Enrolled

In the months leading up to the 2017 field season, we raised just over $38,000 to support the project’s objectives, and 99% of this donation pool was given directly to the participating farmers. Based on the fixed-price reverse auction, the final bid that was accepted from the farmers was $60/acre.

With this financial support we were able to enroll about 630 acres distributed among 17 farms—13 located in Vermont, two in Massachusetts, one in New Hampshire, and one in New York.

Bobolink (female) © Allan Strong

Successful Breeding Pairs and Fledglings

The project state coordinators surveyed the fields this summer to measure the success of the program for grassland birds. They estimated that there were about 294 pairs of Bobolinks on the enrolled fields. Using what we think is a conservative estimate of 2.79 fledglings per breeding pair, we estimate that 820 Bobolink young were produced as a result of the project’s 2017 efforts.

The number of fledglings nearly doubled from 2016 to 2017 even though the amount of protected acreage increased by about 20%. The huge increase in fledgling numbers is due in large part to one of the participating farms in particular, which consisted of 146 acres with many nesting Bobolinks.

The 2017 breeding season was also especially wet in many parts of the northeast. Increased amounts of rain typically means more invertebrates (e.g., insects) for Bobolinks to eat. This enhancement of breeding conditions could have influenced the higher number of Bobolink pairs and fledglings estimated this year.

What We Left On the Table

Another important aspect of this project concerns what we were unable to accomplish.

In 2017, we had to reject applications from 19 farmers who had submitted bids that exceeded what we were able to support from our donation pool. In other words, about 615 acres of offered habitat was lost because we needed more donations.

Of course, it’s wonderful that we succeeded in protecting 634 acres of grassland bird habitat! But the fact that we had to “leave on the table” a total of 615 acres—land that otherwise might have been protected—is a sobering thought. Remember, the more donations we collect, the more land we can protect from haying. We hope this reminder motivates new and previous donors alike to support the Bobolink Project in 2018.

In fact, contributions toward next year’s efforts can be made now—even while the birds themselves are busily heading toward South America! It’s never too early to make a donation, and your gift will be set aside for the 2018 nesting season.

To get the latest information follow us on Facebook, check out the website, or subscribe to our e-newsletter.

Hot Off the Press! State of the Birds 2017

Black-capped Chickadee may face an uncertain future in Massachusetts. ©Bill Thompson, USFWS

It is with great pleasure that we announce that our third edition of State of the Birds is now available. State of the Birds: Massachusetts Birds and Our Changing Climate focuses on what the future may hold for the breeding birds of Massachusetts as the climate continues to change.

Our last two State of the Birds reports, released in 2011 and 2013, compared the past to the present and identified changes in Massachusetts bird populations. The 2017 edition builds on that work by using science to predict the future.

Climate Matters For Birds and People

Most birds have limited distributions and, to some extent, climate controls the range of those distributions. To glimpse the future, we used a statistical analysis called climate envelope modelling.

Put simply, climate envelope modelling uses real bird and climate (various measures of temperature and precipitation) data to define the preferred climate of a bird species—their “climate envelope”—as it is today. Then the models substitute predicted values of the climate variables into the equation to project a bird’s climate envelope in 2050.

Using the results of our analysis, we assigned each of the 143 species analyzed a “Climate Vulnerability” score. There were some expected results and some surprising results. The overarching message was that birds are already feeling the effects of climate change and even some of our most common birds will probably experience further changes by 2050.

It’s In Our Power to Change the Future

While climate change can feel like an overwhelming problem, it is a problem that we can solve. Much like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, we are being shown a possible future for our birds, and, just like Scrooge, we can take action today to change that future.

Visit the website, download the report, and share it with your friends and family. If we work together we can protect birds, wildlife, and ourselves.

Check out the article in the Boston Globe about the State of the Birds report.

Please consider supporting our bird conservation work by making a donation today. Thank you!

On the Road: National Adaptation Forum

by Daniel Brown and Jeff Collins

Jeff Collins, Director of Conservation Science, and Daniel Brown, Climate Change Program Coordinator, attended the National Adaptation Forum (NAF) in May in Saint Paul Minnesota.

The National Adaptation Forum is a gathering of scientists, educators, and community leaders working to address the challenges of climate change.

The field of climate adaptation is advancing rapidly, and Daniel presented on Mass Audubon’s work with communities to identify local critical weather thresholds. Thresholds are used to plan for emergencies and design infrastructure, but those thresholds are often outdated and difficult to measure. On top of that, climate change is making extreme weather events change over time, creating a great deal of uncertainty for communities looking to stay safe, healthy, and resilient. That may be soon changing, however, based on the assessment of experts at NAF. Land managers and city planners may soon get a whole host of new tools that will help plan for the size and frequency of future extreme weather.

Some of the most common themes discussed at NAF were environmental justice and the need for ecological conservation efforts to make communities more resilient. For years, the focus has been on what’s called “green” infrastructure—using restored landscape types like parks, greenways, and rain gardens to lessen the effects of climate change. Now the focus seems to be shifting to protecting undeveloped open areas and letting nature provide a resilient, adaptable places for people and wildlife. Mass Audubon’s Mapping and Prioritizing Parcels for Resilience (MAPPR) tool will help with that effort by allowing land conservationists to identify parcels that are a high priority for protection.

Climate change poses many challenges for our communities in the decades ahead. Underserved communities with less access to open space tend to be particularly vulnerable, but the inspiring work of so many institutions across North America gives plenty of reasons to be hopeful.

 

Please consider supporting our bird conservation work by making a donation today. Thank you!

The Treasure Islands of Essex County

by Chris Leahy, Gerard A. Bertrand Chair of Natural History and Field Ornithology emeritus

Halfway Rock © Chris Leahy

There is something about islands. Their remoteness generates a certain mystique.  Even islands inhabited by people have an aura of “away-ness,” and uninhabited ones stimulate visions of hidden treasures of one kind or another. There is also an ecological significance to islands: their plants and animal communities are often different from those of even nearby mainlands; their isolation from other populations promote evolutionary change; and they may act as refuges for certain species because they are hard to reach by predators.

The coastal waters of Essex County from Nahant Bay to Cape Ann are dotted with more than 50 islands ranging in size from small rocky “skerries” which are nearly submerged at high tide to the well-wooded 83-acre Great Misery Island, two of them populated at least seasonally. In 2002 these were formally designated as the Essex County Coastal Birds Islands Important Bird Area*, due to their breeding populations of water birds that rarely nest on the mainland, including a number of rare or uncommon species.

Straitsmouth Island © Chris Leahy

This summer Mass Audubon’s Conservation Science Department, supported by a grant from the Nuttall Ornithological Club, and the help of several generous private boat owners began a survey of these islands with the following basic objectives:

  • Developing a comprehensive understanding of past and current bird survey efforts, data sources, and management activities.
  • Completing an assessment of current breeding bird activity on the islands.
  • Identifying existing stresses such as human use, presence of rats and other predators, vegetation change, and climate vulnerability.
  • Developing recommendations for future management in support of the breeding birds.
  • Raising public awareness of the importance of these islands through programming and networking with state and regional conservation entities.

The survey has already turned up a number of previously unrecorded breeding sites for wading birds and American Oystercatcher.  We will be publishing more detailed results in the near future.

 

*An Important Bird Area (IBA) is an area identified using an internationally agreed upon set of criteria as being globally important for the conservation of bird populations. The program was developed and sites are identified by Birdlife International based in Cambridge, England. Currently there are over 12,000 IBAs worldwide and 79 in Massachusetts.

 

Please consider supporting our bird conservation work by making a donation today. Thank you!

Standing Together for Migratory Birds

By Jeff Ritterson, Bird Conservation Fellow

On Tuesday, May 9th, I was in Washington D.C. at Standing Together for Migratory Birds—a legislative briefing on federal migratory bird conservation programs.  With recent political changes in Washington, it may seem that support for these programs, and the crucial funding they provide, is on the chopping block.  But that’s not necessarily the case, and here’s why.

As conservation biologists, we understand that humans are inextricable from natural world, and that healthy and functioning ecosystems are inherently good for us.  However, we also understand that money talks, and this was a theme of the legislative briefing.  In remarks given by Senator Whitehouse (Dem-RI), he stated that, more often than not, humans come first on Capitol Hill, and every last issue gets monetized.

With that in mind, the American Birding Association presented on the economics of migratory birds and wildlife watching.  For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that in 2011 Americans spent about $15 billion on birdwatching trips and an additional $26 billion in related gear.  A presentation by Ducks Unlimited also showed that significant money is spent hunting waterfowl, and 98 cents of every dollar from federal duck stamps sales goes to the acquisition of habitat—more than 6 million acres since its inception in 1934.

Of course, these activities depend on the conservation of our migratory bird species, and that’s where federal programs come in.  For example, since 2002 the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act has provided about $60 million to fund over 500 migratory bird conservation projects.  Also, the Farm Bill funds conservation programs that successfully help agricultural producers and migratory birds.  For example, thanks to these programs, Whooping Cranes are now nesting in Louisiana farmland – the first state nest in 75 years.

However, it’s not just a federal handout.  Many programs require additional contributions—as much as 3 dollars for every 1 federal dollar provided.  This way programs stimulate conservation activity and non-federal support from sources such as private foundations and donors.

With such a sound economics, federal migratory bird conservation programs can receive support from both sides of the political aisle.  That said, they are periodically reviewed, and it is important to tell your senators and congressional representative that you support full funding of bird conservation programs.

 

Please consider supporting our bird conservation work by making a donation today. Thank you!