Category Archives: Working Landscapes

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.

 

 

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.

 

A Final Push For Bobolinks In 2018

 

A Bobolink in a field with Oxalis (wild clover) and Vicia (cow vetch). Photo by Allan Strong.

The Bobolink Project is almost ready to go! With one week left for donations, we’re just $2000 away from protecting 1,000 acres of grassland bird habitat this year. That would be nearly twice as many acres as when the project started! With this year’s increase in farmers applying to protect habitat on their land, we need to ask for more help to accept as many applicants as we can.

The Bobolink Project works through a reverse auction, meaning farmers name the lowest per-acre price they’ll accept in exchange for a delay in mowing their fields. We select the lowest bids and work our way up the list, making agreements with more farms until we reach the limit of our Bobolink donations for the year.

Delaying hayfield mowing is a tried-and-true way of protecting Bobolinks. Hayfields provide an excellent surrogate for the tall grassland Bobolinks require to nest- such an excellent surrogate that Bobolinks can rarely differentiate wild grassland from agricultural hayfields. But when fields are mown before the end of nesting season, eggs and nestlings are destroyed during the harvest. Unfortunately, early-season hay is protein-rich and valuable, and some working farms cannot afford to delay mowing and drive down the value of their hay.

That’s where we come in—we use donations to cover the cost of mowing later, essentially buying the birds time to raise their young and move out.

Every donation directly protects acreage of fields and their resident Bobolinks. Please help us make it to our goal of 1,000 acres this year!

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.

Surveying Wildlife at Elm Hill

In order to characterize the bird community at Elm Hill, point count surveys were performed at 24 locations within forested areas of the sanctuary.  During a ten minute period, the species of each individual bird is recorded, as detected by sight or sound, within 50 meters.  This gives us information on the abundance of each species and the overall species richness (number of species).  As is typical, each location was surveyed 3 times, and this yielded 789 detections of birds representing 51 species!

As discussed in previous blog posts about the development of a Foresters for the Birds demonstration site at Elm Hill, these surveys were done to establish a pre-management baseline, which will then be compared with conditions after management.  Wait a minute… 51 species!?!  Is management really necessary?

51 species may sound like a lot, leading to the conclusion that the forests are already providing good habitat.  That may be true, but for what species?  Upon closer examination of the data, we can see that many of the species we recorded (e.g., nuthatches, titmice, and catbirds) are quite common, thriving in our woodlands and backyards alike.  Others, such as Barred Owls, naturally occur at low densities, so we wouldn’t expect to find many of them.

It’s those species that we conspicuously did not detect, or recorded very few of, that we are managing for.  For example Black-throated Blue Warbler and Ruffed Grouse were not recorded.  These species rely on some degree of disturbance to the canopy, creating vegetative growth in the understory and a mix of tree ages in the forest.  These are conditions that can be created through sustainable forestry, and it would not be unreasonable to expect these, and other species of conservation concern, to show up at Elm Hill after appropriate habitat management.  Time will tell.

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

In the Field: Elm Hill

Scarlet Tanager © Ruby Sarkar

Past blog posts about our Elm Hill Sanctuary – a Foresters for the Birds demonstration site—have largely discussed the planning of forestry practices to manage and enhance bird habitat.  We kicked the project off last fall and winter, when our migratory birds were hundreds or thousands of miles away.  So, until spring arrived, we were not able to work much with the birds themselves.

A primary focus of the program is indeed birds and their habitat, so it is important to assess how effective any implemented forestry practices are.  This enables us to make adjustments to future management and maximize the benefit for birds.  We do this by monitoring how the birds respond.  At the earliest, on the ground management at Elm Hill will not happen until this coming winter.  However, we will need to compare the future bird response to current, baseline conditions.  A before-and-after, if you will.

Late May through early July is the ideal time to sample breeding birds.  Migration is over, so all the birds have arrived and will likely remain through the season.  They are on breeding territories and actively singing, which helps us to detect their presence.  During this time we can begin to answer some important questions.

For example, which species are present, and what are their general habitat preferences?  How many species are present?  How many individuals of each species are present?  Is a particular species absent that we may have expected?  Answering questions like these help us to characterize the current bird community.  Answering the same questions after habitat management will help us assess just how effective our efforts were.

Wood Thrush nest © Michael Ross

This is why, with the help of volunteers, Sheila Carroll and Mark Lynch, we recently completed a series of point count surveys at Elm Hill, all within areas that are slated for management in the near future.  With this initial information in hand, we will eventually see how things change after management, which is geared towards helping species in need of conservation action.  The next step will be to dig into the data, and some results will be shared in future Elm Hill updates.  Stay tuned!

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

The Bobolink Project: 2017 season update

 

Male Bobolink © Allan Strong

The Bobolinks are arriving in New England and we’re finalizing the contracts with our participating Bobolink Project farmers. Thanks to the generosity of our Bobolink Project donors, we can protect over 630 acres of farmland this year! In return for some compensation, the Bobolink Project farmers will delay mowing on their hay fields until the young grassland birds have had time to fledge.

As in past years, we had more acres submitted into the project than we could cover with the available pool of donations. This year, we received 40 applications from farmers in Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and New York—but our donation pool, as of April 1st (our deadline for donations), could cover only 17 of the farmers’ fields. This may sound disappointing, but we are able to cover 20% more acres this year at a lower per acre price of $60 (vs. $75 last year).

We are glad that the project is continuing to grow and look forward to welcoming grassland birds to fields enrolled in the program this summer and sharing our results with you. Keep up to date with The Bobolink Project by signing up to the mail-list or follow us on Facebook.

The Bobolink Project donations are accepted all year. The 2018 donation pool is already growing: since April 1st we have received over $8,000 in donations that will be saved for next year. Donate now to help us protect more acres and birds next year.

 

Tree cavities: home to many creatures

When we think about a bird’s nest, we usually conjure up the image of a cup-shaped tangle of twigs and dried grass, with perhaps some moss or strips of bark, cleverly placed in a bush or the limb of a tree.  Maybe that’s because these are the most visible types of nests, whose remnants are easily seen when the leaves drop each fall.  Nests of other birds a quite difficult to see, even in plain sight.  For example, the Piping Plover creates a just slight depression in the sand, and the Eastern Whip-poor-will nests directly on the forest floor, each with highly camouflaged eggs.

Yet another type of nest are those placed in the cavity of a tree.  Many common bird species are actually cavity nesters, including nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, bluebirds, woodpeckers and some owls.  Cavity nests provide protection from predators, shelter from weather events, and can be chosen with respect to the regional climate.  For example, in northern latitudes woodpeckers are known to orient their cavities south towards the sun, so that their young will stay nice and toasty in the nest.

Pileated Woodpecker family; adult male on left, female on right. © Kim Nagy

Woodpeckers are particularly important in the world of cavity nesters.  While cavities can occur naturally in trees, most species are poorly suited to excavate their own cavities, and often rely on holes created by woodpeckers.

Cavities usually begin with a fungal infection, which creates a soft inner wood that is easy to excavate.  This condition is most common in older dying trees, which eventually become dead standing trees (called snags) and continue to be a good resource for cavity nesters.  Unfortunately, dying trees and snags present inefficiencies to timber production, and a history of land clearing and forestry practices have limited snag numbers.  Meanwhile, populations of woodpeckers and other cavity nesters can suffer if there are too few cavity trees available.

The good news is that forestry can also help to increase the number of cavity trees.  For example, the maintenance of large dying trees and snags is promoted by Mass Audubon’s Foresters for the Birds program.  This program, a partnership between Mass Audubon, MassWoodlands Institute, and the Mass Department of Conservation and Recreation, provides assistance to landowners who wish to manage their woods for bird habitat with sustainable forestry practices.

Empowering private landowners is critical because they own the majority (75%) of forests in Massachusetts.

— Jeff Ritterson, Forest Bird Conservation Fellow, Mass Audubon

Northern Flicker (yellow-shafted) adult female with young in cavity nest © Cynthia Rand

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

Bird-friendly Forestry at Elm Hill

These 17 birds were chosen to represent different forest habitats and management options in the Massachusetts Foresters for the Birds program.

Mass Audubon’s Foresters for the Birds program provides assistance for private landowners to manage their forests for bird habitat. Empowering private landowners is important because about 75% of Massachusetts’ forests are privately owned, and management on these lands will be necessary to address conservation needs on a landscape scale.

To promote the program, and to engage and educate the public, we are creating a long-term demonstration site at our Elm Hill wildlife sanctuary in Brookfield and North Brookfield. The first step: develop a 100-year forest management plan for Elm Hill. To do this we are working with a forester who was trained in our Foresters for the Birds program.

In addition to mapping different forest resources, and describing the amount and value of the standing timber, this plan also includes an assessment of the current bird habitat and recommendations for improvement. For example, the structure of the forest understory and midstory, where many birds place their nests, are described in each area of the forest.

The plan also includes strategic locations for the placement of early successional habitat. We are currently reviewing initial drafts of the plan, and working with our forester to iron out the nitty gritty details.

Once the plan is complete, we will then undergo active forest management on the property (probably next year), which will include things like removing invasive plants, and selectively removing trees to improve the composition, health, and resiliency of the forest.

We are also designing a bird monitoring study which will investigate how effective our forestry practices will be.  Because on-the-ground management will not happen until well after this year’s breeding season for birds we have the opportunity this year to characterize how birds are currently using the forest. Comparing that data to similar data collected post management will help us adapt our future efforts to maximize the benefits to our birds.

Beginning as soon as this summer, we will invite foresters, landowners, land trusts, and other conservation entities to visit the property and see how they can manage their woodlands for birds and other wildlife.

Keep checking back for more updates as we nail down our plans and begin the bird monitoring. For more information about the project, see our previous blog post.


Photo credits From top left: American Woodcock © David Larson; Black-and-white Warbler © David Larson; Black-throated Blue Warbler © John Harrison; Black-throated Green Warbler © John Harrison; Brown Thrasher © Patricia Pierce; Canada Warbler © David Larson; Chestnut-sided Warbler © David Larson; Eastern Wood-Pewee © Fyn Kynd; Eastern Towhee © John Harrison; Mourning Warbler © Gerard Dewaghe; Northern Bobwhite © Paul McCarthy; Northern Flicker © Richard Campbell; Ruffed Grouse © Richard Johnson; Veery © Mark Thorne; White-throated Sparrow © David Larson; Wood Thrush © Sheila Carroll; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker © John Harrison

New RCPP Grant Will Help Protect Southern NE Heritage Forest

As we celebrated the holidays with fellow Mass Audubon staff, Jeff Collins received an email announcing that a large Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) grant that our team and partners applied for had been approved!

About $6.1 million will be used to protect and manage forests in the Southern New England Heritage Forest. The area is bounded by Hartford and Springfield in the west, Providence in the east, and runs from the Long Island sound north to the Quabbin reservoir. This region contains a critically important continuous corridor of high-priority forested wildlife habitat.

Over 70% of these woodlands are privately owned, so this grant will focus on engaging

landowners and helping them maintain their forests as forests through sound management and— whenever possible—permanent protection.

Mass Audubon’s role in this grant is to assist project partners’ efforts by providing bird habitat recommendations for forest management plans, training more technical service providers (TSPs) to incorporate birds in their work, increasing TSP registration numbers, and conducting wildlife monitoring on managed sites. Our team will also teach landowners about bird-friendly forest management.

The project will begin in the spring of 2018 and run for five years.