During the recent International Partners in Flight Conference in Snowbird, Utah, the emphasis was on protecting birds throughout their annual cycle. Yet, it is really difficult to set conservation priorities when there are uncertainties concerning the threats that birds face throughout the year. And in order to identify threats, we need to know exactly where populations of our northern breeding birds go during migration and winter.
Everyone at the meeting was talking about migratory connectivity. This refers to the way regional populations of breeding birds create linkages among geographic regions through their migratory behavior. Understanding connectivity is vital to the identification of factors that harm specific bird populations, and unfortunately there is a significant gap in scientific knowledge on this topic. The problem stems from the fact that it is extremely difficult to track such small animals as songbirds over the incredible distances they migrate.
GPS transmitters—which have been successfully used on raptors and shorebirds—are simply too heavy to place on most songbirds, which often weigh less than a few quarters. Radio transmitters are small enough, but these are limited by short signal ranges that would require a biologist to be within several miles of a migrating bird in order to detect it. Fortunately, recent advances in technology are helping us overcome these logistical challenges and are generating valuable knowledge about the movements of North American breeding birds.
Small tracking devices called light-level geolocators now weigh only 0.4 grams and have permitted some amazing advances in our knowledge of migratory connectivity. These geolocators are attached to a bird via a tiny backpack with two leg loops, and they record ambient light levels throughout the day. The light-level data they collect can later be used to estimate the bird’s location within about one hundred kilometers. Day length can give an indication of latitude, as days are longer in the north in summer, and longitude can be calculated from the timing of sunrise, as the sun rises earlier (relative to Greenwich Mean Time) in the east.
The latest advance has been the development of archival GPS geolocators. These weigh a bit more (~1g), but they are far more accurate – within a few meters! To fit this technology into such a small package, they can only record ten location points. However, you can program the geolocator to record these location points whenever you want—say, three fixes during spring migration, four during winter, and three during fall migration. A single bird with a geolocator backpack can depart its breeding grounds in the summer and return in spring with a wealth of information on migratory routes and wintering grounds.
The disadvantage of both types of geolocators is that they are only archival—which means you have to find and recapture your bird the following breeding season to retrieve the data. Due to this challenge, most geolocator studies have small sample sizes, but even so have produced amazing results. For instance, in a 2012 study by Franz Bairlein and colleagues, they discovered that Northern Wheatears in Alaska migrate 14,500 km across Asia to winter in eastern Africa—a unique and incredible journey that was previously undocumented.
In another study, Kira Delmore and colleagues discovered in 2012 that neighboring populations of Swainson’s Thrush in British Columbia exhibited dramatically different migration routes. Coastal birds traveled down the west coast to winter in western Mexico, whereas inland birds traveled overland across the Rockies and crossed the Gulf of Mexico to winter farther south in Central America. Clearly, the conservation of these two populations would require very different strategies.
I picked up brochures on both types of geolocators from the Lotek vendor booth at the conference. The challenge and opportunity now for KBO will be to determine how best to employ this technology to advance bird conservation.
This article is the seventh installment in the series Achieving Partners in Flight Strategic Goals and Objectives.
Klamath Bird Observatory is working with local restoration partners to integrate Partners in Flight priorities and objectives into private lands restoration programs. The Central Umpqua Mid Klamath Oak Habitat Conservation Project, funded by the NRCS Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, is a landscape-scale effort to restore oak woodlands on private lands in southern Oregon and northern California. As a part of this project 15 public and private partners leveraged over $3.8 million to restore 2,000 acres of Oregon white oak habitat.
Lomakatsi Restoration Project and Klamath Bird Observatory are using objectives from regional Partners in Flight (PIF) conservation plans to guide the restoration. Habitat objectives for Oak Titmouse, Acorn Woodpecker, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and other oak woodland species are providing details for management prescriptions designed to create oak woodland habitat mosaics, restore native perennial grasses, and reintroduce natural fire regimes whenever possible. Bird monitoring is being integrated into habitat monitoring efforts to assess the effectiveness of restoration based on PIF population objectives. This unique collaboration received the 2012 Department of Interior Partners in Conservation Award.
Download the Partners in Flight Conservation Brief for this project by clicking here. Also see the 2013 State of the Birds Report on Private Lands that highlighted this collaborative oak restoration project in the section on western forest conservation.
This article is the sixth installment in the series Achieving Partners in Flight Strategic Goals and Objectives.
An important bird conservation goal is to integrate Partners in Flight priorities and objectives into public agency natural resource planning and action. Partners in Flight uses a science-based method for bird conservation that incorporates a multi-species approach for assessing landbird vulnerabilities and needs, setting measurable conservation targets, describing management to meet these targets, and measuring the effectiveness of conservation actions. This approach can help land managers meet their ecosystem management needs. By aligning science, planning, and implementation among partners, we can more strategically implement actions that address priority science and habitat needs.
This strategic goal builds upon ten examples that illustrate both the process and science behind bird conservation throughout the western United States. These examples were recently featured in Informing Ecosystem Management: Science and Process for Landbird Conservation in the Western United States, a Biological Technical Publication published by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The publication (1) describes how bird conservation and effectiveness monitoring can be integrated into land management guidelines with an emphasis on partnerships, and (2) presents case studies which highlight bird monitoring within the adaptive management framework. The publication emphasizes both the science of monitoring and the process of its integration into land management because both are necessary in order for effectiveness monitoring to fully impact decision making.
Collaborating with national and regional partners, Klamath Bird Observatory is working toward better integrating the Partners in Flight approach within federal management planning and implementation. At the 2012 annual meeting of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, we had an opportunity to present specific examples of how the tools developed by Partners in Flight can tie into natural resource management planning to an array of national resource management leaders. We then teamed up with partners in Oregon and Washington to take the message on the road, presenting a traveling workshop that provided training to a wider audience on the use of Partners in Flight tools for assessing conservation needs, setting quantifiable management objectives, evaluating management alternatives, and monitoring management effectiveness.
We are now following up with regional partners to provide guidance on the process for identifying species that can serve as indicators of habitat and/or ecosystem condition at geographic scales appropriate for various land management and monitoring purposes. We are working with Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management partners to develop projects that focus on using Partners in Flight’s conservation planning process in support of broad scaled and project level planning. The recently published Habitat Conservation for Landbirds in Coniferous Forests of Western Oregon and Washington (Oregon-Washington Partners in Flight) is serving to guide these efforts. This plan identifies 25 focal species that collectively represent the important habitat components of a functioning coniferous forest ecosystem.
Klamath Bird Observatory works with private landowners to encourage bird-friendly practices. Working with our partners, we also guide and assess restoration on private lands. We use birds as indicators of the health of the environment because they are diverse and individual species represent specific ecological conditions. Similarly to each individual landowner, each bird species has its own story to tell. By listening to those stories we can learn about the quality of the habitats that birds inhabit and identify restoration actions that can improve the health of the land.
For private landowners considering restoration of their land, understanding the existing and potential future bird community is a good way to grasp the ecological changes that are possible through restoration. Recently, KBO has been working with a number of landowners who are implementing oak restoration. When we visit lands prior to restoration, the bird community we hear tells us about the current habitat characteristics. For example, in a mixed-conifer forest with an oak component we will detect a mixture of birds that prefer both conifers and oaks, or sometimes only conifer-associated birds, such as Red-breasted Nuthatch, Spotted Towhee, Hermit Warbler, and Pacific-slope Flycatcher. If a landowner’s goal is to restore the historic oak woodland, we would expect to see a dramatic shift in the bird community after restoration, to bird species such as White-breasted Nuthatch, California Towhee, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Ash-throated Flycatcher. After learning to identify some of the common birds, landowners begin to see the links between birds and their habitats, and also the possibilities for their land.