The Klamath Bird Observatory’s foundation is rooted in the study of Natural History and the art of Field Biology. As an Observatory we are an institution that supports observation based science. We prescribe intentioned observation to meticulously document our human experiences in the natural world. Using explicit protocols and well-designed studies we document these experiences, collecting scientific information that we use to inform and improve the way our society manages the ecosystems on which all of Earth’s life depends.
Of course, as a Bird Observatory, birds are the focus of our science. Birds are our focus because the study of birds serves as a cost effective tool for learning about the health of our lands, air, and water. Birds are indicators, and each different species serves as a measuring stick, its abundance and behavior providing invaluable information about specific aspects of our environment. They tell us about the condition and function of our forests; they help to guage the health of the important riparian habitats that grow along and protect our rivers and streams. For example, the presence of various birds tells us many things about a forest—Pileated Woodpeckers and Brown Creepers indicate a healthy mix of standing large trees, both alive and dead, while the occurrence of Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Wilson’s Warblers, and Orange-crowned Warblers indicates a multi-story mix of conifers and hardwoods and a complex of forest floor vegetation. Along our rivers and streams nesting success of certain species serves as an indicator of the health of the riparian habitats that shade and cool the water, stabilize the banks, maintain the water table, and serve as a buffer during flooding. Successfully nesting Song Sparrows indicate early development of healthy riparian habitats, and then, as that habitat matures we expect to see a broader suite of nesting riparian species, such as Yellow Warblers and Yellow-breasted Chats.
Ornithologists, and their scientific study of birds, have lead and formed the foundation for 20th and 21st century conservation. Near the turn of the 20th Century professional and amateur ornithologists, through their affiliation with the American Ornithological Union, shed light on the alarming patterns of population decline and environmental degradation that their science was documenting, influencing Theodore Roosevelt’s ambitious conservation agenda, which included the creation of the United States’ Wildlife Refuge System. Through sound science, the waterfowl community created one of the world’s most successful conservation programs—the North American Waterfowl Conservation Plan. This plan guides protection and management of wetland habitats throughout the ranges of the migratory ducks that depend on these habitats during their entire life cycles. And now more recently, the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, through the State of the Birds reports, is bringing to the attention of our top decision makers the fact that birds serve as the bellwethers of our own well-being. Our environmental, economic, and social well-being is inseparably tied to the fate of our birds and we have the science and tools that we need to reverse declines of at risk species while keeping our common birds common—we simply need to make the investment.
With many conservation challenges yet to be overcome, Klamath Bird Observatory is striving to keep our tradition of Natural History and Field Biology alive and well, by ensuring its practice informs effective conservation and helps us to realize tangible benefits for birds and people.
This is an extended version of the Note from the Executive Director article that first appeared in the 2014 Early Winter edition of the Klamath Bird Newsletter.
Click here to visit the Innovations Seminar Series website, where you will find recordings of all the webinars in the series, including John Alexander’s webinar which is the third one listed.
Overcoming Social and Scientific Challenges to Inform Management in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument
Soon after the proclamation was issued, Klamath Bird Observatory began working with all the stakeholders to design and implement a grazing effects study in the Monument. We were faced with both social and scientific challenges that put our new non-advocacy, science-based model to the test. At first, the environmental community voiced concerns about KBO working with the BLM on the study, showing their distrust of the agency. Expressing similar skepticism, many of the ranchers were concerned that we were working with the non-government environmental community on aspects of the study. All parties were concerned that individual partners or funding sources would introduce bias into our results. In addition to these social issues, designing a grazing impacts study in the Monument represented a significant scientific challenge because the majority of the area had been grazed for many decades, leaving us with no ungrazed habitats to use as “controls” against which grazing effects could be compared.
We quickly realized that our non-advocacy, science-based model could be used to turn these challenges into opportunities for success. The study design would require cooperation from all stakeholders; we would need to conduct extensive vegetation surveys to document a subtle gradient representing less grazed to more heavily grazed sites. We took on a leading role in this aspect of the study, viewing its design and implementation as essential to effectively measuring the effects of grazing on the Monument’s objects of biological interest. We also viewed collaboration on the study design as a way to unify both the agency and NGO partners involved in the broader grazing effects study.
Within this context we helped to facilitate a process whereby a team of agency, academic, and NGO scientists collaborated on a transparent set of study designs that were presented for scientific review as well as review by a Resource Advisory Committee representing the diverse stakeholder interests. At a Resource Advisory Committee meeting it was agreed that this peer-reviewed and transparent study, and the peer-reviewed results, would produce an agreed upon body of science that would support the upcoming decisions on grazing that had been called for in the Presidential Proclamation. This elevated the science above the social controversy and distrust, in recognition of the integrity of the scientific process. The stage was set for a management decision to be informed by one of the most comprehensive grazing effects studies ever conducted in the western United States.
Many of the study results did indicate that maintaining the current grazing rate and conserving the ecological integrity required by the Monument’s objects of biological interest would prove to be a challenge for the Bureau of Land Management. For example, our data suggested that reduced grazing would benefit long-distance migrant, foliage gleaning, and shrub-nesting birds in the Monument’s oak woodland habitats, meeting established bird conservation objectives.
During the time that the Monument was being created, and the study was being designed and implemented, a separate negotiation involving the government and the environmental and grazing communities was underway. These groups were seeking legislation to facilitate third-party compensation for ranchers who would donate their grazing leases in the Monument, allowing their allotments to be permanently eliminated. This financial compensation offered an alternative to the Presidential Proclamation that stated, “should grazing be found incompatible with protecting the objects of biological interest, the Secretary shall retire the grazing allotments.” However, it was not until the study results were published that a compensation price point could be agreed upon. The results made the retiring of the allotments more likely, given the Secretary’s obligation to meet the directives of the proclamation.
Our early involvement with the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument grazing study served as an excellent test of our non-advocacy, science-based model, and proved to be a true success story for Klamath Bird Observatory, for science, and for science-based bird conservation. Our non-advocacy, science-based model served as a means for building bridges among adversaries, who were eventually able to collaborate as part of a transparent and effective scientific process. Through our involvement we solidified many long-lasting partnerships with diverse collaborators including the Bureau of Land Management, Geos Institute (formally a local office of the World Wildlife Fund), Oregon State University, the US Geological Services Co-op Unit, and local landowners and ranchers. Additionally, many acres of habitat in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument are no longer grazed by livestock, a change in management that is benefitting the ecological integrity of the Monument and many of the resident and migratory birds that depend on its oak woodland habitats.
Over the past 19 years, Klamath Bird Observatory has hosted over 170 student volunteer interns from 16 countries and 23 of the US states. Our objective with each individual has been to create a safe and fun learning experience, with the hope that we impart some positive influence on their academic and professional careers. Certainly, we have enjoyed the company of some incredibly bright, energetic, and enthusiastic individuals.
Luis Morales of Mexico interned with KBO in 2012. At that time he was laying the foundation for a new bird observatory in his native San Pancho, Nayarit, located on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Luis mentored with KBO Executive Director John Alexander as part of his training. The San Pancho Bird Observatory is now a healthy and growing organization advancing bird conservation and education in western Mexico, where many of our nesting songbirds spend their winters.
Keith Larson of Washington interned with KBO in 2004 and 2005. He later completed a PhD at Lund University in Sweden studying songbird migration patterns. Keith is now a research ecologist with the Abisko Arctic Research Lab in northern Sweden, where he is examining the effects of climate change on Arctic ecosystems.
Viviana Cadeña Ruiz of Colombia interned with KBO in 2002 and 2003. She later completed her PhD at Brock University in Canada on the effects of high altitude acclimation on thermoregulation. Viviana is now an eco-physiologist. She recently commenced a three year postdoctoral research fellowship with the University of Melbourne in Australia, where she is researching the adaptive significance of color change in bearded dragon lizards.
These are just a few examples of KBO intern successes – former KBO interns making positive impacts in the world of science and conservation throughout the globe. Our hope, as always, is that their KBO experience has played some part in their accomplishments.
On a cool, clear summer morning a few weeks ago in northern California, several members of the KBO team and I crouched behind a screen of willows next to our mist-net, swatting at the abundant mosquitoes and listening to the birds singing all around us. We were a bit nervous, as our research quarry was a Yellow-breasted Chat, a strikingly beautiful bird known for its garrulous song, but also a bird that can be furtive and shy, preferring to keep to the densest thickets of blackberry. Our goal was to capture, tag, and release 22 male chats… and we only had four days to do it!
We would attach a lightweight scientific device called a geolocator to the Yellow-breasted Chats we captured in order to track the birds throughout the year. We wished to learn their migratory routes and the location of their wintering grounds. Understanding migratory connectivity – the way a single bird population links geographic areas through its breeding, migratory, and wintering behaviors – has long been a significant scientific challenge. Many songbirds travel incredible distances over the course of a year, and in most cases they are too small to carry GPS satellite transmitters that would allow biologists to study them year-round. The resulting gap in our knowledge is a barrier to successful full life cycle conservation. Scientists and land managers need to know where birds are throughout the year in order to better understand habitat needs and identify threats.
Fortunately, advances in technology are helping us overcome the logistical challenges of monitoring small songbirds, and we’ve learned a tremendous amount about the movements of North American breeding birds during the past decade. Small light-level geolocators for tracking birds now weigh less than half a gram. A geolocator is attached to a bird via a tiny backpack with two leg loops, and it records ambient light levels throughout the day. The data it collects can later be used to estimate the bird’s prior locations within a few hundred kilometers. Day length gives an estimate 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 as you travel east across the globe. One limitation of geolocators is they are so small they cannot transmit information; therefore, these units must be retrieved—typically following a roundtrip migratory journey—in order to extract the data.
On this cool June morning, Klamath Bird Observatory was attempting to employ the new geolocator technology on Yellow-breasted Chats at our Trinity River field site in northern California. We were trying to lure the male Yellow-breasted Chats into our mist-nets by playing audio recordings of other males singing territorial songs. The hope was that male chats in our area would rush in to investigate the new “rival” and inadvertently fly into one of our soft mist-nets. We also had a painted wooden chat decoy to use as additional bait. We weren’t sure how strongly the males would respond to audio playback or the decoy, and thus we waited anxiously; the success of our mission hinged upon their behavioral response.
After some time passed and we hadn’t heard our target male singing, two of us broke off to set up a new net in a (hopefully) better location. Before long, we heard KBO Executive Director John Alexander’s voice over the walkie-talkie: “He’s in the net!” With excitement, we raced back to the banding station to attach our first geolocator in what would become a very busy and thrilling week.
Assisting in this endeavor were KBO’s Trinity River field interns, who had been mapping the territories of Yellow-breasted Chat pairs, and several other bird species, for the past six weeks. They guided us to each known chat territory, allowing us to quickly locate and capture the resident males. We also had experienced bird banders from the US Forest Service’s Redwood Sciences Lab, including CJ Ralph and Andrew Wiegardt, and volunteer David Price, as well as experienced KBO staff, such as John Alexander and myself, to do the job.
We captured four males on the first day alone. Having the male chat in hand, however, was only the first step of the process! Placing a small geolocator on a small bird whose dense feathers obscure your ability to see what you’re doing requires significant manual dexterity. Each geolocator has a harness threaded through it, consisting of two leg loops made of Stretch Magic, a common craft supply item. The night before, we measured out the moderately stretchy rubber threads and fused them into closed loops in the field house. We used a formula to calculate what size of bird would match up with each harness we created. The chats in northern California ranged from about 22-29 grams in mass, requiring harnesses with spans of 45-51 mm. The difference of a few millimeters may seem negligible, but a harness that fits correctly is vital for bird safety. A harness that is too big or too small could hinder the birds’ wings or legs, and it could fall off or create other problems during the long migratory journey. While our method required some preparatory work, it allowed us to quickly attach harnesses in the field, thereby saving valuable field time and reducing stress on chats during the handling period.
We continued to move through our study plots, setting up nets in the dense streamside vegetation and eagerly watching the male chats respond to our audio “intruders” and fly into our nets. We eventually captured 22 males, which allowed us to deploy all of our geolocators! Now, we must hope that a substantial number of our tagged males survive the roundtrip migratory journey and the long winter to return again next spring so we have a chance of recapturing them and retrieving their data. Due to this challenge, most geolocator studies have relatively small sample sizes; nevertheless, these studies have revolutionized our understanding of migratory connectivity.
We are partnering with Christine Bishop and her research team from Environment Canada and Simon Fraser University. Together, we will examine our data and compare the migratory routes and wintering grounds of our northern California population of Yellow-breasted Chats with those of an endangered population of chats that breed in British Columbia. This project will eventually form a tri-national partnership, including our San Pancho Bird Observatory partners working in overwintering areas in Mexico. We are excited to see the results, but for now we must wait. The Yellow-breasted Chats in northern California are finishing nesting for the season and will soon wing their way back to their southern homes. They will remain there for several months, until the lengthening days of spring urge them to return to us once more.
Klamath Bird Observatory hosted an outreach event for professional partners on June 9th at our Upper Klamath Field Station’s Sevenmile Long-term Bird Monitoring and Banding Station in the Fremont-Winema National Forest. This picturesque research facility, a historic Forest Service Guard Station, is located on the northern outskirts of the Klamath Basin, nestled in a small clearing surrounded by shrubs, forest, and streamside habitats.
Such habitat diversity translates into avian diversity, and as our partners enjoyed pastries, spooned parfait, and sipped coffee at the start of the event, a variety of birds called from the surrounding vegetation, including Northern Flickers, Yellow Warblers, Western Tanagers, Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Song Sparrows, and an occasional chatty Belted Kingfisher.
Klamath Bird Observatory initiated this first annual Bird Banding Outreach Day to demonstrate the value of our long-term monitoring program to our professional partners who support the KBO programs that inform their natural resource management work on public lands. KBO Executive Director John Alexander opened the event with an overview of the history of the Klamath Bird Observatory, focusing on our work in the Klamath Basin and our nearly 20 years of collaboration with the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and US Fish and Wildlife Service. Then, Science Director Jaime Stephens provided a summary of our scientific programs, including a new study on the habitat preferences of Black-backed Woodpeckers in green, unburned forests.
The group, including US Forest Service professionals from the Fremont-Winema National Forest, then moved to a shaded picnic table near a copse of young aspen where biologists are set up to measure, band, and release songbirds that are being tracked as part of KBO’s long-term monitoring program. When we arrived, KBO intern Kaitlin Clark from Michigan was gently blowing on the head feathers of a Yellow Warbler to glean information about skull development that can help determine the bird’s age.
KBO Biologist and Banding Project Leader Robert Frey described the purpose and procedure of the banding program to our guests. In brief, bird banding is a method of bird monitoring that can be used to track the size and characteristics of a population over time. First, a bird is gently caught in a soft, fine net called a mist net. After being carefully removed by a biologist, a small aluminum band is placed around the bird’s leg like a bracelet. Engraved in the band is a unique number which will allow biologists to track the bird if it is recaptured. Additional data are collected (e.g., age, sex, weight, breeding condition) and then the bird is released to continue its daily activities.
The Klamath Bird Observatory banding program has numerous conservation applications. We learn whether birds are successfully breeding in an area—an indication of healthy habitat. We learn whether birds are surviving migration—information that can inform international conservation efforts. Re-sightings of banded birds give us specific locations related to migration routes and overwintering sites. More generally, we monitor birds because they tell us about the functioning of the environment as a whole, and this has important consequences for birds, other wildlife, and human communities.
Before concluding our morning, each of the banding interns—including Aracely Guzman from Mexico City, Alexis Diaz from Lima, Peru, and Chris Taft from Seattle, Washington—spoke about their interest in bird conservation and their professional development goals for their internship with KBO. One of the great contributions of the KBO banding program is the training of over 170 early-career conservation biologists who go on to advance conservation in the US and abroad where many of our breeding birds spend their winters.
Klamath Bird Observatory is grateful for our federal agency partners who enable and support the bird conservation work we do on public lands. Thanks to all of those who joined us for our first annual Bird Banding Outreach Day!