Category Archives: Citizen Science

The Death of a Warbler: A Tragedy in Four Chestnut-sided Parts

Prologue

In addition to collecting data on bird-window collisions, Mass Audubon’s Avian Collision Team also generates many good stories that range from hopeful, to tragic, to simply strange. While most of the birds our volunteers found were dead, some were nursed back to health at the Tufts Wildlife Clinic. What follows is an account of one window-struck Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica) that proved to be an emotional roller coaster for our project coordinators.

Part I: The warbler is alive

A dedicated ACT volunteer called up about a handful of window-struck birds outside a building facing the Boston Public Garden. Most were dead, but for a single Chestnut-sided Warbler. It was apparently sitting on the curb, visibly breathing, but injured. The volunteer was a little shaken up. Since they didn’t have a net or tools to safely catch the bird, I advised them to wait to see if the bird could fly off on its own before trying to catch it.

Our volunteers snapped a quick cell phone photo of the injured warbler next to the curb.
Our volunteers snapped a quick cell phone photo of the injured warbler next to the curb.

Part II: The warbler is dead

A few minutes later, the volunteer called back– sounding even more shaken. The bird had flown away, but just as it lifted off, it was caught in a gust of wind from a passing car and was struck by the fender. From the volunteer’s description, the bird was truly lifeless. The volunteer said they would take the carcass back to their freezer and eventually bring it to the Harvard zoology museum, where we had been depositing specimens for research.

Part III: The warbler is alive, again

“It’s alive!” were the first words out of the volunteer’s mouth on our third phone call within a half-hour. “The bag started moving!”

Stunned birds can truly appear lifeless, and in fact, many birds that hit windows are stunned, concussed, or go into shock before eventually shaking themselves off and flying away. But just because a bird can fly doesn’t mean it’s healthy. A broken clavicle or corocoid bone allows birds to make short flights, but prevents them from gaining altitude, halting their migration and making them an easy meal for predators. Any bird found stunned from a building impact is a good candidate for treatment at a wildlife care center.

The volunteer met Mass Audubon staff at a nearby T station to hand off the bird, which was taken to Tufts Wildlife Clinic.

Part IV: The warbler is dead. Again.

The Tufts clinic graciously provides every animal with a case number, so its finder can call up to check on its condition.

While the bird was initially given an optimistic prognosis, we learned a few days after dropping it off that it had suffered untreatable head trauma. The bird had died.

Epilogue

While healthy bird populations naturally fluctuate enough to practically erase the effect of one birds’ death, there is no harm in trying to save individual lives. Naturally, most volunteers prefer to put in the extra effort involved in helping injured birds than leave them to die from an indirectly human-inflicted injury. It was sad not to be able to save this warbler, but we did successfully release a number of other birds, including Brown Creepers, Song Sparrows, Ovenbirds and Common Yellowthroats.

If you want to help monitor window collisions and ambulate injured birds, join Mass Audubon’s Avian Collision Team for its fall migration via this form!

Join the Avian Collision Team’s Second Season

Here’s an easy way for anyone living or working in Boston to help migratory birds: help monitor window collisions!

An Indigo Bunting lies stiffly among litter, hours after striking an office building window in Boston. (Photo: ACT)

Mass Audubon is seeking new volunteers for the fall season of the Avian Collision Team (ACT). ACT is an initiative to collect data on bird–building collisions, and to rescue injured birds.

This spring, the team of birders, conservationists, and other concerned citizens observed 115 birds across 38 species affected by window strikes. This fall, and in coming seasons, we need to keep up the momentum and grow our dataset.

The Problem

Window collisions are an under–appreciated source of bird mortality in the US, causing several hundred million casualties annually.

Birds struggle to distinguish reflections from reality, and often strike glass windows that reflect the sky or nearby greenery. City lights also confuse night-migrating birds, which use the stars to navigate, and which often land near sources of light pollution. Many window strikes occur as birds try to re-orient in the morning, after being drawn in to an unfamiliar concrete jungle.

Project Details

The program runs from August 24–October 28 in downtown Boston. Volunteers need to sign up for 1-4 weekly shifts, Saturday–Tuesday, that can take place between 6-9am. Most shifts last around 30-60 minutes.

Volunteers walk predetermined routes through downtown Boston to photograph or collect deceased specimens, fill out data sheets, and occasionally rescue live birds. We’ll be holding volunteer trainings on August 11, 18, and 22.

Carrying out ACT surveys can be an eye-opening experience, between watching the city as it’s waking up, discovering seemingly out-of-place warblers, buntings, and vireos, and occasionally saving the life of an errant, injured migrant. And once you’ve found your first few birds, a collector’s instinct sometimes kicks in, making the search all the more engaging. It’s like birding with a twist– a sense of urgency, purpose, and sometimes, a touch of sadness.

If this sounds compelling, sign up here!

Avian Collision Team: First Season Updates

Since mid-April, a team of Mass Audubon volunteers has combed the streets of downtown Boston in search of migratory birds killed by collisions with windows. Here are some preliminary results of our first season running the Avian Collision Team (ACT).

The first statistic that jumps out is the higher-than-expected number of live, injured birds found by our volunteers. Based on what we heard from New York, Chicago, and Toronto, we had told volunteers it was highly unlikely they’d be able to save any injured birds. This ended up being far from the truth! Here’s one video of a Brown Creeper that was well enough to be released after suffering non-life-threatening head trauma:

The Five “Hardest-hit” Species

Some patterns are also beginning to emerge in the species of birds we’ve been finding. Here’s the full breakdown:

The five most frequently-encountered birds (in bold text above) have something in common: they’re all low-flying migratory species, and they’re relatively common. Certain buildings also seemed to kill a disproportionate number of birds that climb trees vertically, like woodpeckers, nuthatches, Black-and-white Warblers, and Brown Creepers. Other cities have reported similar species profiles with an emphasis on common migratory birds that fly low and weakly.

The Bottom Line

A few dozen people surveying a thin slice of the city for an hour or so per week found 119 window-struck birds of 38 species.

Other cities report that certain seasons have up to four times the number of strikes than others. The wide variability of window strikes makes it difficult, after just one season, to make broad statements about how many birds die from collisions in Boston annually, or establish how Boston shapes up compared to other cities. That said, our numbers fall roughly into the range reported by similarly-sized programs in other cities, like Baltimore, Detroit, and New York.

After accounting for scavengers, industrious building cleaners, and low volunteer detection rates, it’s estimated that only 10-20% of window strikes on a given route are actually recorded. That makes our numbers all the more sobering, especially considering our volunteers covered less than 1/50th of the street area of Boston.

That said, window strikes by themselves may not drive bird declines in Massachusetts. Window strikes are an additional stressor, however, on top of a laundry list of human-caused threats to bird populations. In today’s world of climate change, habitat loss, and invasive species, every bird counts– which is why window strikes are worth understanding.

Cities Are Only Part of the Problem

Outside the study areas in Downtown Boston, our volunteers reported many casualties even without focused searching. Their findings emphasize what other studies already suggest: window strikes are at least as much of an issue at single-family homes and low-rises as they are at tall urban buildings.

The good news is that there are lots of ways to make your home or office windows bird-safe. Here are some tips:

Screens on windows are the cheapest and perhaps simplest option: they break up reflections and also provide a springy barrier that collision-bound birds can bounce off of.

Where screens are impossible, consider buying or building an Acopian Bird Savers (hanging lengths of bird-deterring string). Learn how to build your own here!

Window decals only work when spaced less than 2” apart vertically and 4” apart horizontally, but when used correctly, they’re another great option. Certain kinds are transparent to human eyes, so even narrowly-spaced ones won’t interrupt your view.

Installing UV-reflective patterned glass like Ornilux is extremely effective, and by far the most discrete option– but also the most expensive.

Finally, turning unneeded lights off at night helps conserve energy and avoid drawing birds into strike-prone areas.

(Disclaimer: Mass Audubon has no affiliation with any of the above vendors).

Meadowlark Project 2019: Birding for Conservation

Now in its third year, the Eastern Meadowlark Project is a great way to support bird conservation by simply going birding.

By checking for meadowlarks at a list of sites and entering observations on our project webpage, citizen scientists help piece together the reasons for this species’ decline.

Eastern Meadowlark (photo by Phil Brown)

We know that meadowlarks are in trouble. Between 1974-2011, meadowlarks disappeared from over 78% of their Massachusetts breeding sites, according to Mass Audubon’s Breeding Bird Atlas.  This decline is only partially explained by meadowlarks’ habitat requirements.

Our 2018 volunteers found meadowlarks at just 3 sites out of over 100 protected grasslands across the state. While meadowlarks do persist at a handful of known agricultural sites outside our survey areas, these results suggested they aren’t using all of the habitat ostensibly available to them. So, while we know habitat loss is a major factor, we also know that it’s not the only part of the meadowlark decline equation.

Our next step is to check sites where meadowlarks were historically seen–including areas that might not be textbook habitat for them. This year, surveys will take place at sites where Eastern Meadowlarks were spotted during the past two Breeding Bird Atlases (1974-1979 and 2007-2011). This will help us both establish where meadowlarks have disappeared from their historical range, and what kinds of habitats meadowlarks are using aside from natural grasslands.

Go Birding—For Science!

First, visit our Anecdata webpage to select sites where you can help look for meadowlarks.  You’ll need to create an account by clicking “register” in the top right corner and creating a username and password. Then, return to the meadowlark project page and click “join project” (just under the photo of the meadowlark). To view a map of sites, click on “add an observation,” then click “use a hotspot” in the upper left, and then click “map.”  Finally, be sure to sign up for the hotspots you choose on the signup list mentioned in the project description!

To keep our data uniform and reliable, a volunteer should survey a site three times between April 10 and June 15, for any 10-minute period between 5:00 am and 9:30 am.  Not all of our sites may have meadowlarks, and that’s perfectly fine— knowing where they aren’t, and figuring out why, is just important to us as knowing where they are.

Thanks for helping us help grassland birds– and good luck finding meadowlarks!

Help Us Learn About Bird-Window Strikes Downtown

Calling all citizen scientists near Boston!

Mass Audubon needs your help monitoring an underappreciated threat to migratory birds: window collisions. We’re looking for volunteers to collect data on bird-building collisions and rescue birds that survive a strike.

A Black-throated Green Warbler that died on migration from a window collision.

The Problem

Window collisions are a surprisingly significant source of bird mortality in the US, causing several hundred million casualties annually.

Birds struggle to distinguish reflections from reality, and often strike glass windows that reflect the sky or nearby greenery. City lights also confuse night-migrating birds, which use the stars to navigate, and which often land near sources of light pollution. Many window strikes occur as birds try to re-orient in the morning, after being drawn in to an unfamiliar concrete jungle.

How to Help

The Avian Collision Team (ACT) is a new volunteer initiative to get as much data as we can about building strikes in Boston. We want to understand the scale of the problem in Boston, where the trouble spots are, and which species are most affected.

The program runs from April 13–June 4. Volunteers need to sign up for 1-4 weekly shifts, Saturday–Tuesday, from 8 am to around 9 am.

We are looking for two kinds of volunteers:

1. Monitoring volunteers who will walk predetermined routes to collect deceased specimens, fill out data sheets, and occasionally rescue live birds.

2. Transport volunteers who can pick up specimens from monitors and bring them to a collection site at Harvard. Drivers will also bring occasional injured, live birds to Tufts Wildlife Clinic in Westborough as needed.

Similar programs have shown that in parts of some cities, there are practically no casualties. In others, certain buildings can kill a dozen birds a day during peak migration. Scientists have developed guidelines for what makes buildings especially dangerous to migrating birds, but they’re still pretty rough. The best way to know where and to what extent there’s a problem in Boston… is to check! 

If this sounds interesting, sign up here!

A Birder’s First Christmas Bird Count

This is a guest post by Nick Tepper. A recent graduate from the University of Vermont, Nick is an up-and-coming expert on New England birds, a lifelong naturalist, and is currently fulfilling an AmeriCorps service year with Mass Audubon.

It was 5:30am on a frigid causeway in the middle of Lake Champlain– technically Colchester, VT, but we may as well have been in the Bering Sea given the arctic wind and cold. I remember stepping out of the car at our first site and walking the first steps of a two-mile icy bike path into the freshwater ocean. This was the inauspicious start to my first-ever Christmas Bird Count (CBC), in the winter of 2017. We could barely see, perhaps because the sun had not yet risen, or perhaps because of the 20mph winds that froze our eyelids shut. I spent the next hour or so shivering and trying to figure out what we were doing out there!  Why torture ourselves? Had we no self-respect?

Finally, the sun rose over the trees, and somehow in the –12-degree weather, it was warm. Looking towards the sunrise, we saw birds begin to appear in the dawn. A Snowy Owl was the first species we saw, glowing orange in the early light. What a moment to behold… its yellow eyes opening for seconds at a time to scan the lake for ducks, just as we did with our binoculars. That bird kept us warm all day. We ended up tallying 48 species, and I learned more about birding than I had in all my younger years memorizing plumage patterns, molts, and call notes.

A distant Snowy Owl perched on a block of ice in a watery, frozen marsh. Photo by William Freedberg.

Birding as defined by my first CBC was not a hobby, a job, or a passion— it was a mindset. More importantly, it is a mindset that people could share. If you participate in a CBC, you will inevitably make acquaintances, connections, and very likely some lifelong friends. For me, the best part of the CBC is that you do not need to be a seasoned birder to participate, you need only have an interest in birds and a pair of binoculars.

CBCs, Formerly Known As Christmas Bird Hunts

The Christmas Bird Count, now a grand tradition understood as an all-hands-on-deck census, was borne out of a more grisly 19th-century rite. CBCs were developed by conservation-minded ornithologists as replacements for a tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt.” Hunters would celebrate the season by taking “sides” after Christmas Day and filling the sky with bullets, with the goal of (quite literally) stacking up as many species as possible.

During the holiday season of 1900, noted ornithologist Frank M. Chapman piloted the idea for a Christmas Bird Census instead of a competitive hunt. On Christmas Day 1900, Chapman and 26 other counters pioneered 25 counts, counting 90 species. The count has since grown. Last year, 76,987 counters completed 2,585 counts internationally, tallying a total of 2,673 species! Even so, the CBC can always use more counters, and the birding community would love to have you along for the jolliest day of the year. 

Join Your Local Bird Count!

While some CBCs have already taken place, there are plenty more in Massachusetts before the year is up. Try getting in on one of the following:

  • The Concord CBC will take place on Sunday, December 30, and includes the towns of Concord,Lincoln, Acton, Maynard, Sudbury, and others.
  •  The Marshfield CBC is scheduled for Sunday, December 30 on the South Shore, and includes Marshfield, Duxbury, Hanover, and Pembroke.
  • The Newburyport CBC will take place next weekend on Sunday, December 23, and includes an abundance of saltmarsh habitats including Salisbury State Reservation, the famed Plum Island, and several towns on the North Shore.

Can You Help Us Find Meadowlarks?

The Eastern Meadowlark is in serious decline in our state and nationwide. To understand what we can do to turn this around, we’re enlisting the help of volunteer birders and citizen scientists. By entering observations on our project webpage, anyone can contribute to conservation efforts for this iconic species.  

Photo by Phil Brown

Meadowlarks disappeared from over 78% of their Massachusetts breeding sites since 1979, according to Mass Audubon’s Breeding Bird Atlas.  This decline is only partially explained by meadowlarks’ habitat requirements.

Conservation scientists know that meadowlarks need a certain kind of grassland habitat— vegetation that’s short, but not too short; fields over 20 acres with no standing trees. These days, however, suitable fields that once rang with meadowlark song are quiet and still.

Agricultural intensification certainly plays a role: 95% of Eastern Meadowlarks nest on private land. Fallow farm fields are harder to come by and pesticide application increases apace; more and more pastures and grassy fields are either overgrazed or developed. But this is only part of the story, and it’s up to us to figure out the rest.

Go Birding—For Science!

All you need to do is visit our Anecdata webpage and select sites where you can help look for meadowlarks.  To view a map of sites, click on “add an observation,” then click “use a hotspot” in the upper left, and then click “map.”  Be sure to sign up for the hotspots you choose on the signup list mentioned in the project description!

To keep our data uniform and reliable, a volunteer should survey a site three times between April 20 and June 15, for any ten-minute period between 5:30AM and 9:30AM.  Not all of our sites may have meadowlarks, and that’s perfectly fine— knowing where they aren’t, and figuring out why, is just important to us as knowing where they are.

These surveys can be great fun. It’s no longer every day that casual observers see the bold pattern and lemon-yellow blaze of a meadowlark standing, flaglike, atop a fencepost. Fewer and fewer people recognize their ringing whistle. There’s always some pride in finding an uncommon bird. But the joy of a meadowlark sighting can also be colored by nostalgia, whether for the historical abundance of grassland birds, or the broader decline of pastoral landscapes.   

The great thing is, we can do something about it.

Eastern Meadowlark Citizen Science Project May 15–June 15

Eastern Meadowlark © Phil Brown

Calling all birders and bird enthusiasts!

We have launched a multi-year citizen science project to study Eastern Meadowlarks. The project aims to collect presence-absence data for Eastern Meadowlarks at randomly selected sites throughout Massachusetts from May 15 to June 15, 2017. Eastern Meadowlarks are in serious decline, both in Massachusetts and elsewhere in North America, and in order to better help this species we need to know more about their status in Massachusetts. The data collected through this project will provide valuable information about this species’ current distribution in the Commonwealth, and will form the basis for a better assessment of meadowlark habitat requirements and future conservation needs.

To get the information we need it is critical that we get help from citizen scientists. There are a lot of potential sites where Eastern Meadowlarks could be nesting, but there are only a few of us! The results of this work will help us develop models for use in evaluating potential sites that have not been visited.

Project data can be easily entered through the Anecdata website on a computer or in the field on a mobile smartphone device. The surveys required are simple and quick (10 minutes!) to do. We’ve provided our citizen scientist volunteers with “hotspots” where we specifically need a volunteer to do a meadowlark survey on three separate dates (with preferably at least 3 days in between each date) during the period of May 15 and June 15. Many of these hotspots will likely not have Eastern Meadowlarks, but knowing where Eastern Meadowlarks are not is just as valuable for scientific analysis as knowing where Eastern Meadowlarks are.

More information about how to get involved is available on the project website.

Not familiar with Eastern Meadowlarks? Check out our quick guide and listen to their song.

Questions? Contact us at birdconservation@massaudubon.org.

Breeding Bird Surveys going strong on Mass Audubon Sanctuaries

People have been observing and counting birds at Mass Audubon sanctuaries for as long as these properties have existed. In order to provide a focus for these observations and to insure that data are collected in a similar fashion, Mass Audubon initiated a program of breeding bird surveys on our sanctuaries in 2004 and has been carrying out these surveys ever since.  We use standard point count methodology where observers stand in the middle of a 50 meter (forests) or 100 meter (salt marsh, grasslands) radius circle for 10 minutes three times in June and record all the birds they see or hear.  The goal of the program is to track the birds that occur on our sanctuaries during the breeding season, determine the habitat characteristics that support different species of birds, evaluate the impact of any ecological management, and examine long term trends, such as those that might be caused by climate change.  Since 2004 staff and volunteers have logged over 30,000 records of birds in 315 counting circles on 48 sanctuaries. We typically carry out surveys at each sanctuary for three years every ten years, but at a number of sanctuaries, enthusiastic staff and volunteers have made observations every year.

We have recorded 149 species of birds during these breeding bird surveys of which 25 are considered conservation priorities.  Sanctuaries harboring the most of these high priority conservation species are Allens Pond, Wellfleet Bay, and Ipswich River.  Not surprisingly, sanctuaries in central and western Massachusetts, such as Pleasant Valley, Wachusett Meadow, and Rutland Brook and are notable for the number of wood warblers and other species associated with forest interiors that have been recorded in these sanctuaries.  Vegetation data we have collected on our counting circles have shown that many of these wood warblers species have an affinity for forests containing a high percentage of evergreens.

The breeding bird surveys will enable us to track changes in a number of birds that are conservation priorities.  Salt marsh sparrows are considered vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise associated with climate change.  After ten years of monitoring, the numbers of

Saltmarsh Sparrow by John Sill

Saltmarsh Sparrow by John Sill

saltmarsh sparrows seems to be holding its own at Allen’s Pond and Rough Meadows wildlife sanctuaries.  Data from other surveys carried out over a longer time period indicate a steady decline region-wide, so it is important for us to continue these surveys on our sanctuaries.  We are also tracking the responses of bobolinks to ecological management measures that create improved grassland habitats at Daniel Webster and Drumlin Farm.   Neotropical migrants whose numbers are declining nationally, such as wood thrushes are also priorities for our monitoring.  As permanently protected lands, the sanctuaries at Mass Audubon enable us to evaluate changes in the populations of these and other birds over long periods of time and allow us to take actions that will serve to maintain and enhance their populations in the future.

Give a Hoot About Owls

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Short-eared Owl, by John Sill.

Halloween is a fitting time for us to shine a spotlight on owls, birds of prey who are well-known for their nocturnal activities and haunting hooting.  There are eight regularly occurring species of owl in Massachusetts and they are found in a variety of habitats, including your residential neighborhood!

Although they are quite common, owls can be very mysterious and little is known about their habitat needs or population dynamics. Unfortunately, data from our State of the Birds monitoring suggests that three species, Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl and Barn Owl are declining in Massachusetts. These species require urgent conservation action and we need your help to fill knowledge gaps about their populations.

Our Owl Citizen Science project is helping to unravel the mystery of where owls occur; we have had more than 300 reports of areas where owls have been seen or heard. The majority of data have been on the location of breeding owls, and many people have even reported nests. While these data are valuable, we are also interested in information on wintering owl populations. This citizen science project runs year round so give a hoot about owls and report your sightings today!

We were lucky enough to have Barred Owls breed outside the Bird Conservation office at Mass Audubon Headquarters this spring. Photo by Marj Rines.