Category Archives: Research and Monitoring

Good News Update: Barn Swallows Successfully Nested at Conte National Wildlife Refuge

Barn Swallows nesting at the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge have had a successful season in 2020 in the Fort River Boat House. The full final report is available here.

Season Summary

We estimate that 30 – 38 pairs of Barn Swallows nested in the Fort River Boat House in 2020.

Of 98 adult swallows banded at Fort River in 2019, 27 were recaptured in 2020 (28%). This number is probably lower than the actual number present due to fewer banding days conducted this year during the pandemic. This return rate is similar to rates found in other studies of Barn Swallows. While a 28% return rate may not seem particularly high, remember that swallows banded in 2019 made two long migrations to and from South America before returning to breed in Massachusetts in 2020. And, because returning Barn Swallows don’t show perfect site fidelity, some individuals may have simply chosen to nest elsewhere in the area.

Young Barn Swallows (Photo by Richard Kramer)

This Success Informs Future Conservation Actions

Aging barns occupied by Barn Swallows are a common feature in New England’s historical agricultural landscape, and sometimes these structures simply cannot be saved. Thanks to the help of collaborator Andy French, project leader at the Conte Refuge, we have learned important lessons about how to attract and relocate Barn Swallows into alternative structures where they can be protected in cases where occupied barns must be removed. Some of the steps that were taken included:

  1. Collection of some nests after the breeding season to use in attracting swallows the following year to a different, more secure nesting location. A majority of nests built in 2020 were built on top of “seed” nests that had been harvested in 2019.
  2. Placement of nesting structures, hung from the Boat House rafters, to provide nesting sites. Some of these structures also included defecation screens that prevented swallow droppings from raining down on equipment below—an important consideration for private landowners who often have to deal with bird damage to their tractors and other farm equipment.
  3. Playback of Barn Swallow vocalizations was used in 2019 to advertise the availability of the Boat House site to pairs that were nesting in the nearby Bri Mar Stable. In 2020, we decided not to play audio recordings because Barn Swallows had already begun to move into the Boat House in 2019.

Next Steps for Aerial Insectivore Conservation

Mass Audubon also hopes to continue to contribute to a developing US Fish and Wildlife Service initiative aimed at conserving aerial insectivores (e.g., Barn Swallows, Cliff Swallows, Chimney Swifts, bats, etc.), pollinators that feed in fields and field edges, and grassland-nesting species in the Connecticut River Valley. If we are successful in securing funds, we hope to collaborate with the Conte Refuge in 2021 to deploy VHF nanotags on breeding Barn Swallows to learn more about the locations of important feeding areas with presumably healthy insect populations. This work would also include education activities, working with private landowners to maximize the conservation benefits associated with their farms, as well as conducting inventories of declining birds and other taxa. We’ll post more information about these efforts in future blogs.

Support our efforts to conserve Barn Swallows and other birds >

Be on the Beaver Lookout

Mass Audubon and the Boston NASA DEVELOP National Program team are collaborating to learn more about how Massachusetts beavers impact the landscape using satellite imagery, and we need your help.

The NASA DEVELOP National Program addresses environmental and public policy issues through interdisciplinary research projects, applying NASA Earth observations to community concerns around the globe. Teams of DEVELOP participants partner with decision-makers to conduct 10-week rapid feasibility projects, highlighting relevant applications of NASA Earth observing missions, cultivating advanced skills, and increasing understanding and use of NASA Earth science data and technology. The DEVELOP Program conducts 55-65 projects annually across 11 national locations. This spring, the DEVELOP Boston team is partnering with Mass Audubon to explore how beavers influence the Massachusetts landscape.

Beaver © Allison Bell

A Conservation Success Story 

The beaver (Castor canadensis) is North America’s largest native rodent. They are adapted for aquatic environments and easily recognizable by their long, flat tail and sharp front teeth.

European colonists found beaver’s thick, waterproof fur highly desirable and decimated their populations across the U.S. Unregulated trapping, deforestation, and the destruction of wetlands led to the local extinction of beavers in Massachusetts by the end of the 18th century.

In one of the most successful conservation efforts in U.S. history, New York reintroduced approximately 20 beavers from Canada and Yellowstone in 1904. By 1915, the population exploded to about 15,000 individuals and began to disperse to surrounding states. In 1928, beavers were discovered in West Stockbridge, the first recorded occurrence in Massachusetts since 1750.

To support Massachusetts populations, Mass Audubon’s Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary reintroduced three additional beavers in 1932. Today, beavers have been restored to nearly their entire historic range throughout the state, found everywhere except Cape Cod.

Busy Beavers Build Habitat

Beavers are known as ecological engineers. They alter and create new habitats by building dams from sticks and mud to create still, deep ponds. These ponds provide beavers with access to food, protection from land predators, and shelter.

Beaver Pond © Allison Bell

By building dams and creating ponds, beavers restore lost wetlands, of which about half have disappeared in the lower 48 states since European settlement. Beaver ponds are home to rich biodiversity, including amphibians, reptiles, spawning fish, muskrats, bats, various birds, and a wide variety of plants.

Altering the hydrology helps control downstream flooding, improve water quality, trap silt, and resupply groundwater. When the dam is abandoned and the pond drains, nutrient-rich silt creates highly productive meadows. However, beaver dams may cause unwanted flooding to neighboring properties, but can be mitigated through various solutions.

Tracking Beavers from Space and on the Ground

The spring 2020 Boston NASA DEVELOP team is using NASA satellite imagery to find and track beaver flooding events across Massachusetts to see how their populations are impacting landscapes. The team will be corroborating potential beaver flooding using iNaturalist beaver observations. iNaturalist is an online citizen science platform, where users upload and identify species observations (images or audio recordings).

Map showing beaver flood events at Wachusett Meadow & Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuaries © Dr. Valerie Pasquarella, Boston University

How You Can Help

Help Mass Audubon and the NASA DEVELOP team by reporting beaver signs, including dams, lodges, chewed logs, or beaver themselves using iNaturalist, either in our sanctuaries or anywhere across Massachusetts.

https://static.inaturalist.org/photos/60714452/large.jpeg?1580660129
Beaver chewed tree at Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary reported on iNaturalist © Jennifer Clifford

Written by Cameron Piper, TerraCorps Service Member

Drumlin Farm is banding Massachusetts’ smallest owl – the Northern Saw-whet

A team of researchers measure the wing feathers on a Saw-whet owl at Drumlin Farm’s banding center. Handling owls is only legal with a government permit, and only by researchers trained to handle them safely.

Each year, Mass Audubon sanctuaries across the state set up banding stations to track Saw-whet owl migration. Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, Moose Hill in Sharon, and Daniel Webster in Marshfield all have dedicated crews of Saw-whet owl banders. November is the best time to find these tiny predators, as large numbers are passing through Massachusetts on their migration route.  

Saw-whets were an under-studied species 

At 7-8 inches long and weighing 2-5 ounces, Saw-whet owls are about the size of an American Robin. Because of their small size, Saw-whets are difficult to find. Many birders used to consider them a rarity, but in 1994 a study at Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary revealed that these birds are much more widespread than previously thought. In fact, they are found in higher numbers than any other owl species in Massachusetts in the fall. 

Saw-whets are migratory 

Not only were these birds mistakenly thought to be a rarity, but they were also thought to be permanent residents. With anecdotal evidence as well as increased banding efforts, researchers have discovered that most of them do migrate, and can travel as far south as the Mexican border. Their migration routes, however, are less consistent and more unpredictable than other migrants, making them a complicated species to study.

A scientist holds a Saw-whet Owl with a “bander’s grip,” securing it’s talons in a way that’s safe and comfortable for both the bird and the human.

Banding efforts in the US 

In 1994, Project Owlnet was initiated as a way to bring together data from across the country and recruit new banding stations. Participating organizations share research and best practices to better understand these birds. The map below shows a map of owl banding stations that are a part of Project Owlnet. 

Mass Audubon sanctuaries contribute to this dataset by banding, weighing, and measuring Saw-whets. They also identify each bird’s age, sex, and take feather samples for DNA research. 

Fun fact: Saw-whet age can be determined with UV light 

The fluorescent color in young owl feathers comes from a pigment called “porphyrin,” which causes the feathers to appear red under UV lights. This pigment breaks down over time and exposure to light, so researchers can use this technique to identify an owl’s age. The pictures above show a second-year Saw-whet because they have clear pink hues in their newer primary feathers and on their coverts.  

Findings 

The map below shows banding stations in Massachusetts (yellow dots), Saw-whet owls from Massachusetts that were recaptured elsewhere (red dots), and Saw-whet owls banded elsewhere that were recaptured in Massachusetts (blue dots). Owls have been banded along their migratory route from as far north as Ontario and as far south as Maryland. 

Interested in seeing these owls for yourself? Join Mass Audubon at one of many upcoming nocturnal events. Happy owling! 

29% of America’s Birds Are Gone. What Are We Doing About It?

“Species extinctions have defined the global biodiversity crisis, but extinction begins with loss in abundance of individuals” —Rosenberg et al., Decline of the North American Avifauna (2019)

So begins the first comprehensive review of bird population trends since the mid-20th century. Summaries of the study are available via the New York Times and NPR.

The results were unequivocal: 76% of all bird species in the US are declining, some precipitously. Compiling on-the ground data from Breeding Bird Atlases revealed that the total number of birds in the US has fallen by 29% since 1970. Some groups fared worse than other over the five decades in question: shorebirds were down 37%, warblers were down by 33%, and aerial insectivores were down by 32%. And the total volume of birds in the sky, as detected by the national weather radar, was down 14% in the last ten years alone.

Rusty Blackbirds, an inconspicuous, clear-eyed relative of the more common Red-winged, underwent a population crash of over 93% over the past several decades. They are now rare enough that monitoring them is difficult.

This is bad news. Really bad news. But it’s possible to fight, and it’s even reversible. Scientists and conservation professionals have time-tested and proven strategies for stemming the tide of ecological decline, and the only obstacles are funding, public interest, and political will.

Mass Audubon continues to take a multi-pronged, species-specific approach to mitigate the damage in our state. Here are a few of the solutions we’ve already mobilized:

Habitat protection

Birds simply can’t exist without bird habitat. We protect 36,000 acres of bird habitat in Massachusetts through direct ownership, and another 6,000 through “conservation restrictions” and other legal protections against development.

We’ve recorded 149 species of bird breeding & raising their young on our wildlife sanctuaries– over two thirds of the total species in the state.

Landowner Partnerships

Where we can’t protect land through direct purchase, we find ways to ensure that it’s being used in bird-friendly ways. Many grassland species have healthy populations on agricultural land, and agricultural practices can make or break their prospects for survival. The same goes for forest birds living on land actively managed for timber; birds and forestry can coexist where sustainable practices are applied.

Mass Audubon encourages bird-friendly agriculture through projects like the Bobolink Project, incentivizing landowners to delay mowing hayfields until after Bobolinks and other grassland birds have completed nesting. The project compensates landowners directly for any profits lost due to delayed mowing, and the compensation fund is 100% donor-supported. In 2018, we saved more than 1,000 Bobolink fledglings from going under the mower.

Similarly, our Foresters for the Birds program pushes a bird-friendly approach to forestry in Massachusetts. One of our sanctuaries even acts as a demonstration site for how sustainable forestry and bird habitat go hand in hand.

Direct Habitat Management

Mass Audubon is directly responsible for managing between 40-50% of Piping Plovers (a federally Endangered species) in Massachusetts, a state with 1/3 of the Atlantic Coast population. We also are responsible for 20% of the state’s American Oystercatchers, and 40% of its Least Terns.

Since 1986, Piping Plovers have rebounded from 135 pairs to 680 pairs.

While the Cornell study showed shorebirds declining on a continental scale, conservationists in Massachusetts have known that shorebirds were in trouble since the middle of the last century. That’s why Mass Audubon developed our Coastal Waterbird Program to protect shorebirds through management, conservation, policy development, and education.

Science-based Advocacy

In the past year alone, Mass Audubon petitioned for three species to receive special legal protections from the state: Eastern Meadowlarks, Saltmarsh Sparrows, and American Kestrels. These petitions were based on our own monitoring of these species’ populations, which are in particular trouble and require intervention, as well as growing consensus among ornithologists.

We also speak up when legal frameworks for protecting birds are under attack. The rollback of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act last year was a major setback for bird conservation, and we spoke up.

Fight the decline with your donation today >

Field Notes: Southern Breeding Birds Are Moving North

“Whe-peet!” Hearing the explosive, snappy squeak of an Acadian Flycatcher at a Mass Audubon sanctuary would have been a huge surprise, were it not for the species’ ongoing shift northward into Massachusetts. Stumbling on this denizen of the American South used to be a downright rare occurrence here, but the northern edge of its summer range has advanced in fits and starts since the early 2000s.

When this particular bird was observed defending a territory at a sanctuary in Central Mass this summer, it was the first time it had been recorded as a likely breeder at a Mass Audubon property. Yet breaking the news in the Bird Conservation Department’s offices elicited mild enthusiasm and a hint of fatalism, with reactions ranging from “Cool!” to, “yeah, they’re comin’.”

Along with a few dozen other species, it seems this once-scarce visitor is on track to become a regular summer resident in a growing part of the state.

As Climate Changes, So Do Bird Ranges

Data from Mass Audubon’s first and second Breeding Bird Atlases showed an increase in breeding records of Acadian Flycatcher between 1974–2011.

Acadian Flycatchers are a naturally inconspicuous species, but other birds have made more dramatic entrances into Massachusetts. Red-bellied Woodpeckers are a loud, gaudy species of wet southeastern forests that have become downright common throughout southern New England. Northern Cardinals delighted birders in the middle of the 20th century as their brilliant reds and muted oranges became common sights in suburban yards and city parks.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker at a backyard feeder—in the dead of winter! Photo by Christine McCormack.

All of these range shifts have been thoroughly documented by scientists as well as casual birders. The most comprehensive effort to document these changes is coordinated by the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). Mass Audubon is NEON’s partner for bird data in New England, and every summer, our staff contribute bird censuses to NEON from across the region.

NEON treats birds as one piece of a vast puzzle: by studying how long-term ecological trends line up with each other, the project aims to parse out the causes and consequences of environmental change. Read more about our work with NEON in this blog post!

The Role Of Ecological Monitoring

Range shifts represent more than a curiosity to ornithologists. Rather, they are part of larger ecological disruptions caused by a warming climate and other human-caused factors like agricultural intensification, urbanization, and invasive species.

While a few species adapt to these changes and even benefit from them, they do spell trouble in the grand scheme of things. Niches go unfilled as some species’ ranges shift away from habitats they were once well-adapted to, leaving their home ecosystems in flux.  Other species’ ranges are limited by physical factors like elevation, or by the distributions of their competitors or their food source. Birds with finely-tuned ecological roles struggle to adapt to changing conditions, most bird species’ populations decline.

This makes keeping tabs on bird populations critical.

Conservationists first establish which species are declining or adapting (and why, and how) in order to target habitats to create or manage and prioritize species for legal protection.

This leads to concrete action, like advocating for the state to list acutely declining species as Endangered, or creating young-forest habitat at wildlife sanctuaries– all pieces of planning for a future with brave new ecological realities.

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!

Joan's Video

Joan Walsh: In the field at Great Gull Island

Ever wonder what we do in the field? Check out this video of Bertrand Chair, Joan Walsh, marking Roseate Tern nests on Great Gull Island, NY. Jeff Collins, Director of Conservation Science at Mass Audubon, asked Joan to share what a day in the field looks like on Great Gull Island. Joan has worked on Great Gull Island off and on for 39 years. The island is home to 18,000 Common Terns and 3,000 federally endangered Roseate Terns.

When she reaches a Roseate Tern nest box, if there is a nest, she marks it with GPS coordinates and records data on eggs and nestlings. Roseate Terns prefer to nest under vegetation or in man-made nest boxes. The work seen in this video was part of Joan’s 5-day effort to mark nests.

Important: It is illegal to approach or disturb a nest without a permit. Joan works under a permit to research Roseate Terns and Common Terns.

*Video footage was sped up when Joan is doing the nest box marking to fit more content in 1 minute. Joan is not that speedy!

Studying Forest Structure At Elm Hill

Our bird conservation staff spent the past week collecting data at Elm Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, our demonstration site for Foresters for the Birds. Since we’re using this site to show how responsible forest management can enrich bird habitat, we need before-and-after data to compare changes in vegetation and bird diversity.

Birds See Forests For The Trees

The physical structure of a forest directly affects which birds are found there. The amount of vegetation near the forest floor (or “understory”) changes whether or not the forest can host a whole suite species that nest near the ground, like Ovenbirds and Black-throated Blue Warblers. Forests with open midstories (the layer of vegetation between 5–50 feet off the ground) attract flycatching birds like Eastern Wood-Pewees, but dense midstories appeal to Wood Thrushes and Canada Warblers.

The goal of our work at Elm Hill is to demonstrate how every forest species has its own habitat preferences, and how thoughtful land management can create habitat for declining species. Since three quarters of Massachusetts’ forests are in private hands, it’s critical to make these lands as hospitable as possible to wildlife.

Collecting Vegetation Data

A data sheet we use for recording information about trees and forest structure at Elm Hill.

Before we alter any habitat at Elm Hill, we’re recording these factors at sites where we’ve previously done bird surveys:

  • Total woody biomass (i.e., the average size and number of trees in a given area)
  • Tree species makeup (i.e., which trees are there, and how many of each)
  • Canopy density (i.e., the amount of cover provided by leaves in the treetops)
  • Sapling density (i.e., the number of young trees from around 1–6 feet tall)
  • Coarse woody debris (i.e., the number of logs and slash piles on the ground)

We outline a 400-square-meter plot with ropes at every site to make sure we collect data from the same area of land each time. This works pretty well until somebody tangles the ropes:

Jeff tangled the ropes. It definitely was not me.

While measuring trees, logs, and saplings is straightforward, you might wonder how researchers measure canopy density— and the instrument for this is quite cool. A spherical densiometer (pictured below) condenses a wide view of the canopy into a small image (much like a fisheye camera lens) with a grid over it. By estimating the percentage of each grid square occupied by leaves or trunks (and adding them up, and taking readings in each cardinal direction), we have a standardized and simple way of measuring canopy density. This also works as a proxy for determining how much light reaches the forest floor.

A spherical densiometer, used for measuring the amount of leaves in the treetops.

Long-term Goals

After foresters have cleared the woods of invasive species and created a variety of spatial habitat types, we’ll be able to show what changes this brings to Elm Hill’s bird species.

Elm Hill contains mostly 70–90-year-old forest, like much of Massachusetts. We’ll manage parts of the sanctuary for birds that prefer young forest, which are in trouble statewide, and in other part’s we’ll try to mimic old-growth forest conditions, which would take over a century to emerge naturally. Hopefully, we can then use this site as a physical example of how foresters and landowners can improve bird habitat on the properties they manage.

 

 

50 Years Of Discovery At Great Gull Island

A Season With The Terns

I first visited Great Gull Island as a volunteer in 1980. I was an undergraduate at Southern Connecticut State College, and had friends who worked on the island. I went out for a weekend, and like many others, I never really left. Sure, I’ve gone off and worked in Georgia, on the Farallones, in Cape May, and for Mass Audubon, but there is something about this place that never leaves you.

This year, the project celebrates its 50th year of full-season tern research. I wanted to go back and indulge in a full summer once again. I arrived on April 22 for an 8-week stint, which meant that for the first time, I saw the birds arrive fresh from their wintering grounds in South America. On a cold and grey April 29 morning, burrowed deep into my winter-weight sleeping bag I heard one tern, then a second calling. I raced outdoors, camera in hand, and got a video of them drifting through the clouds, calling as they came home.

A tern and a bander on Great Gull Island. Photo by Joan Walsh.

A quick check of eBird records showed very few had been reported south of us before they came home. Had they flown over water most of the way? Was the last place they saw South America? Did they fly directly to their island? The details of the transit were important to my science brain, but the shimmering white birds falling from the grey sky, calling for their 20,000 neighbors, was one of the most powerful natural moments I have ever witnessed.

They come back slowly – just a few at first, coming in in the morning, the numbers, and noise, building each day. At first they fly in tight flocks, looking more like a group of migrating Red Knots than terns. They leave at midday to go forage, then return at night and through the early morning. Then, one day you realize they aren’t leaving, and some are even courting, then more, then more.

Their tentative residence is no longer. They are home, and they are fierce.

The Setting

Great Gull Island seems unremarkable at first: 19 acres of sand and rock, formed as so much of our coastline was by the terminal moraine of retreating glaciers 10,000 years ago. The island is tiny— about half a mile long and a quarter mile wide.

The island sits in some of the roughest waters in Long Island Sound, between Plum Island and Fisher’s Island, NY. Each outgoing tide drains Long Island Sound of 2-3 feet of water, and about half of that water comes past Great Gull. A typical tide rushes by at 5 knots; a strong tide moves even faster. The sea is often heaped into 4 foot standing whitecaps, giving the water to the east of Great Gull the title of The Race, and to the west, Plum Gut.

The currents are so strong that sandlance and small herring can’t swim well against them, making them easy prey for lurking striped bass and bluefish. The currents also put baitfish at risk from aerial predators, which is one reason Great Gull Island hosts up 30,000+ Common and Roseate Terns during the summer breeding season.

In profile, the island shows a tall “hill” to the east, a flat meadow in the center flanked by another hill, and a long meadow towards the west. Much of the island is lined with huge granite boulders, similar to those used in jetties along the rest of the coast. In the summer the Island sprouts 20 or more small white-topped towers used as blinds for watching nesting birds. This, coupled with severe signs warning “DO NOT LAND” give it an otherworldly appearance – a mysterious place clinging to the bedrock as tide rush by, and thousands of birds swirl and scream overhead.

The Military History

The two “hills” seen in profile are anything but. They are the remains of a US Army coastal defense project. Great Gull was re-christened Fort Michie when the Army ejected the resident tern colony and began construction of a fort in 1896, which they occupied through World War 2. At one point hundreds of men lived on the island in a self-contained small town, complete with electricity, running water, and a hospital. The remains of the coastal defenses are still in evidence everywhere. Most notable are those cement “hills,” honeycombed with tunnels where armaments were stored.

These tunnels, and 6 gun emplacements, are still standing around the island. And the biggest of them all is the massive gun emplacement that held a 16 inch gun – it actually took a shell that was 16 inches in diameter. Three brick officer’s quarters also remain, and two concrete watch towers are still standing. The rest of the fort was reclaimed by the weather or demolished by 1960.

The Return of Nature

After World War 2, the Army sold the island to the American Museum of Natural History for $1, and for the most part little was done on the island for about 10 years.

In the early 1960s, the island was visited by a group of ornithologists from the American Museum of Natural History. One woman, Helen Hays, saw the island’s potential as a research site, grabbed ahold of her work, and 58 years later is still directing the research on Great Gull Island (GGI). A handful of Common and Roseate Terns had begun to colonize the retired US Army fort, and the visitors, being curious scientists, hatched a plan to return Fort Michie to its former natural glory (and name).

The Research

At GGI, Helen Hays has managed thousands of volunteers to amass one of the longest runs of known-lineage data in the world. It is not hard to trap a bird, read the band, and follow that bird’s lineage back to 1980. This is done by daily nest searches, aided now by GPS locations for all nests. A subset of the adult birds are trapped and banded, and as many Common Tern chicks are banded as possible. Roseate Terns, as federally endangered species, have stricter rules for handling. All nests are marked, but a very limited number of adults and chicks are handled.

Despite the presence of the researchers the colony has flourished. Hundreds of papers have come from the work, and each year more questions are brought to the forefront. Helen has encouraged work by independent researchers, and has mentored thousands of ecologists, despite managing one of the most complex research stations on the eastern seaboard.

Four years ago I began a series of simple observations on Common Tern. We had done them in the past, but what would a repeat show? I select a set of nests, and for two hour intervals record the time of each fish delivery to the young. I identify the fish, and estimate the size. Each year I choose between 10 and 30 nests to watch. Preliminary work with the data showed really impressive changes in the feeding rates for the nestlings. For two years we recorded fairly similar feeding rates – each nest received about 1.1 per hour. But in 2018 that rate tripled to 3.3 fish per hour per nest. These data support the anecdotal observations we had on GGI this year – there were a lot of fish!

Data like these are important for understanding the variability in chick survival, and can act as a surrogate for understanding changes in fish populations. Coupled with the long-term research on annual productivity and survival rates on the island, this helps us to flesh out what is happening in Long Island Sound from year to year, and as the waters warm due to climate change.

 

A team of researchers from Argentina that visits Great Gull every Summer. Photo by Joan Walsh.

Two Poems for Bobolinks: Dickinson and Bryant

Mass Audubon’s Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary: a few miles from where Emily Dickinson was inspired by Bobolinks- which have returned to the property thanks to careful stewardship.

References to Bobolinks abound in poetry from 19th-century New England. Massachusetts authors drew inspiration from local birds for a host of reasons, not least because they saw local species as uniquely American subjects (as opposed to, say, the European Nightingale). Bobolinks and Meadowlarks helped distinguish their work from other English-language poets’, and perhaps more importantly, ground it in a sense of place.

Bobolinks were also particularly an familiar and evocative sight through the 1800s and into the past century. Widespread low-impact agriculture provided habitat for field-loving Bobolinks, which don’t mind living near humans as long as their nests are undisturbed. Conspicuous and bold, Bobolinks became an icon of the countryside, and a cultural touchstone for many.

Emily Dickinson, one of rural Massachusetts most-celebrated poets, took a particular liking to them. Bobolinks recurred as a motif in more than 20 of her works. Dickinson often made the birds into rowdy or joyfully anti-authoritarian figures, as here:

 

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

–Emily Dickinson

 

Loosely interpreted, the poem emphasizes finding joy in nature and in the everyday. Here, the Bobolink is part of Dickinson’s everyday “Heaven” on earth; its song part of her quiet resistance to organized religion. Dickinson had studied religion in a seminary, but perhaps tellingly, dropped out after a year.

Dickinson always ascribes human qualities to the bird to illustrate a point—whether as a “Sexton” (someone who rings the bells of a church) calling her attention to beauty in nature, or in other poems, as a disruptive “Rowdy of the Meadow.”

Other poets, however, grounded poems in Bobolinks’ natural history and biology, although few connected them with complex societal themes as adroitly as Dickinson. William Cullen Bryant, for example, managed to accurately convey key points about Bobolinks’ seasonal behavior (despite leaning pretty heavily on twee personification and cutesy metaphors):

 

Merrily swinging on briar and weed,
Near to the nest of his little dame,
Over the mountain-side or mead,
Robert of Lincoln is telling his name:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Snug and safe is that nest of ours,
Hidden among the summer flowers;
Chee, chee, chee.

Robert of Lincoln is gaily drest,
Wearing a bright black wedding-coat;
White are his shoulders, and white his crest;
Hear him call in his merry note:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Look what a nice new coat is mine,
Sure there was never a bird so fine.
Chee, chee, chee.

Robert of Lincoln’s Quaker wife,
Pretty and quiet, with plain brown wings,
Passing at home a patient life,
Broods in the grass while her husband sings:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Brood, kind creature; you need not fear
Thieves and robbers while I am here.
Chee, chee, chee.

Modest and shy as a nun is she;
One weak chirp is her only note,
Braggart and prince of braggarts is he,
Pouring boasts from his little throat:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Never was I afraid of man;
Catch me cowardly knaves, if you can !
Chee, chee, chee.

Six white eggs on a bed of hay,
Flecked with purple, a pretty sight!
There as the mother sits all day,
Robert is singing with all his might:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Nice good wife, that never goes out,
Keeping house while I frolic about.
Chee, chee, chee.

Soon as the little ones chip the shell,
Six wide mouths are open for food;
Robert of Lincoln bestirs him well,
Gathering seeds for the hungry brood.
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
This new life is likely to be
Hard for a gay young fellow like me.
Chee, chee, chee.

Robert of Lincoln at length is made
Sober with work, and silent with care;
Off is his holiday garment laid,
Half forgotten that merry air:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Nobody knows but my mate and I
Where our nest and our nestlings lie.
Chee, chee, chee.

Summer wanes; the children are grown;
Fun and frolic no more he knows;
Robert of Lincoln’s a humdrum crone;
Off he flies, and we sing as he goes :
“Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
When you can pipe that merry old strain,
Robert of Lincoln, come back again.
Chee, chee, chee.

– William Cullen Bryant

 

Bryant’s poem draws a parallel between the Bobolink’s behavioral changes over a breeding season and a human who is burdened with work and worry as they age. But the poem is essentially fanciful, and its goal is mainly to describe these seasonal arcs with flowery language. Still, it’s a rare poem for weaving in a significant amount of natural history.

One could say that Dickinson’s and Bryant’s poems have different goals. Dickinson uses the Bobolink as a device to illustrate the experience of finding joy and religion in nature; she ascribes human qualities to a bird to tell us something about ourselves. Bryant’s poem ascribes human qualities to a bird, but more to illustrate points about the bird itself.

Which poem do you prefer? Do you know of any contemporary poems about Bobolinks—or maybe have written one yourself? Share with us below in the comments!

You can also learn more about (currently-living) Bobolinks and how to protect them at Mass Audubon’s Bobolink Project website.