Category Archives: Forestry for the Birds

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.

 

 

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!

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.

Foresters for the Birds Program comes to Elm Hill

Brown Thrasher by John Sill

Brown Thrasher by John Sill

Birds that breed in young or recently disturbed forests are a conservation priority in Massachusetts.  Sharp declines of these species, such as the Eastern Towhee and Brown Thrasher, have been linked to habitat loss due to changes in the frequency of these natural and anthropogenic disturbance regimes.  For example, fire and flooding have been suppressed, our familiar middle-aged forests are less susceptible to storm damage, and once common forestry practices have declined.

However, carefully planned forestry is one of the most effective ways to create early successional habitat, and the corresponding breeding bird species respond positively.  What’s more, some species of birds that breed in the more mature surrounding forests use these same young forests during the post-fledgling period – a time of high morality after young have left the nest.  Having this habitat in place also bolsters populations of mature forest breeders.

Mass Audubon’s Foresters for the Birds program responds to this conservation need.  The program provides technical assistance to private landowners who wish to manage their woods for important bird habitat, including the creation of early successional forest.

To further this conservation initiative, Mass Audubon will demonstrate these science-based habitat management techniques at our Elm Hill sanctuary.  Not only will this project provide crucial habitat for species in decline, but the site will also be used to educate professional foresters, agency staff, conservation professionals, the land trust community, our members, and the public at large.

Funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Federation, the project is in its initial phase.  The end product will be a 100 year plan to maintain a mosaic of forest successional stages, including various ages of young forest, and stands that will naturally progress towards old growth conditions.  In this initial phase, we are working with a Foresters for the Birds trained forester to map out the existing forest resources, and determine areas to be actively managed for bird habitat.  Other phases include monitoring birds to assess and adjust our management efforts, delivering public outreach, engaging the help of volunteers, and conducting studies of other taxa to inform management decisions.

This will be an exciting time of sharing and learning, and we hope you will follow along with the project as we post further updates.

Forest Bird Program

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White-throated Sparrow, John Sill

One of the top recommendations from our Breeding Bird Atlas 2 and State of the Birds 2013 work was to create more young forest habitat. Birds that breed in young forests, such as the White-throated Sparrow and Eastern Towhee are some of our most steeply declining species.

Jeffrey Ritterson, our Forest Bird Conservation Fellow has been working hard to promote support for young forest birds. Jeff has been working on the Foresters for the Birds Program, a partnership between Mass Audubon, the Massachusetts Woodlands Institute and the Department of Conservation and Recreation. The program trains consulting foresters, who create habitat management plans for private landowners, to manage forests for birds. Around 70 % of Massachusetts’ forests are privately owned so the program has the potential to greatly affect the quality of forest habitat in the state.

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Early successional forest habitat in Petersham, MA

The program is currently focused in areas west of the Connecticut River and Jeff has been busy preparing for the eventual statewide expansion of the program. In addition to training consulting foresters and conducting forest bird habitat assessments on properties, Jeff has been working to update existing outreach materials. These updated ‘how to guides’ will include information specific to forest types and bird assemblages that correspond to regions of Massachusetts.

In April Jeff attended the annual Mass Forest Alliance meeting in Holyoke to promote the program. There is a busy summer ahead for the program with many workshops and habitat assessments booked across the state!

Managing Forests for Birds

Eastern Towhee, by John Sill.

Eastern Towhee, by John Sill.

On October 15th Joan Walsh and Jeff Ritterson joined their partners from  MassWildlife,  the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and Franklin Land Trust to present an integrated land management program to interested citizens in (gorgeous) Leyden, MA.

Leyden is one of the focal towns in our Foresters for the Birds program, and our staff spent the day introducing landowners to the thoughts behind the program, as well as introducing land management ideas to benefit grassland nesting birds.

Many thanks to Scott Sylvester, Consulting Forester,  Drew Vitz, our State Ornithologist, as well as DCR Service Forester Alison Hunter Wright and Wendy Sweetser Ferris from Franklin Land Trust for making it a successful day. And thanks to Mother Nature for putting on her party dress, and making the leaf peepin’ nearly perfect.

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Foresters and landowners learning about bird friendly management practices in Leyden, MA.

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Fantastic fall colors, Leyden MA.

 

Fellow for Forest Birds Update

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Mass Audubon’s Fellow For Forest Birds Jeffrey Ritterson.

Jeffrey Ritterson, our new Bird Conservation Fellow for Forest Birds has been very busy since starting in September. Jeff came to us having just completed his Masters at Umass and is now working to expand our Foresters for the Birds program to new parts of the state. During the past few weeks, he has been reaching out to landowners interested in improving bird habitat in their forests and conducting walks on properties with foresters to review management options.

Additionally, as Mass Audubon embarks on a partnership with the Department of Conservation and Recreation to actively improve habitat for at risk forest species, he will be designing studies and monitoring protocols to assess the effectiveness of any actions. This will include studying the effects of creating early-successional forests – a rare habitat type in Massachusetts.