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!
Klamath Bird Observatory is currently serving on a national team of scientists and communications specialists working to produce annual State of the Birds reports. The reports link bird conservation to the fundamentals of sustainability. They recognize that bird populations, like the famous canary in the coal mine, serve as bellwethers of the health of whole ecosystems, and thus our economic and social well-being.
As the State of the Birds Team works on the upcoming report, which will provide an update on bird population trends in our country since the initial report five years ago, we reflect on the centennial commemoration of the Passenger Pigeon. Once North America’s most abundant bird, the Passenger Pigeon was driven to extinction 100 years ago. A lesson that emerges from this travesty is that we must use proactive approaches to natural resource management and excellent applied science to avoid such unnecessary losses in the future.
While the State of the Birds reports highlight many inspiring conservation success stories, such as the recovery of the Peregrine Falcon, and the effective management of migratory birds through the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, they also outline some alarming trends. For example, declines of western forest birds appear to be sharpening, a reflection of the forest management challenges facing local communities, economies, and ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest.
So, by placing a birding festival within a conservation context, we are balancing troubling news about declining bird populations with the optimism that science-based conservation can work. The Mountain Bird Festival celebrates how citizens and science can reverse bird population declines through strategic habitat conservation, an engaged citizenry, and stewardship for resilient ecosystems. During the festival, field trip goers will be exploring the Klamath Siskiyou Bioregion, an area renowned for its high diversity of western forest migratory birds. This is also an area where opportunities abound for improved conservation of these species.
By signing up for the Mountain Bird Festival, every registrant will be purchasing a Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp and thereby directly contributing to habitat protection within the National Wildlife Refuge System. Additionally with registration, every festival attendee will be purchasing a Mountain Bird Conservation Science Stamp, with proceeds supporting Klamath Bird Observatory’s scientific programs that are driving western forest bird conservation in the Klamath Siskiyou Bioregion and throughout the Pacific Northwest.
We hope you attend our inaugural Mountain Bird Festival and help us write a new conservation success story starring citizens, science, and mountain birds.
Birding festivals are growing in popularity across the world, and, increasingly, these community events are becoming “eBird Festivals.” eBird is a real-time, online checklist program that has revolutionized the way that the birding community reports and accesses information about birds. eBird festivals use the eBird program to track the many birds seen on the field trips offered during these events that celebrate birds and birding. eBird Festivals also provide outreach, promoting the use of eBird by helping festival attendees set up their own eBird accounts and providing information about the powerful data entry and exploration tools offered by eBird. By integrating eBird within festival activities these eBird Festivals are building on a significant opportunity for the birding community to contribute to the science that drives conservation worldwide.
Two of the first birding festivals to adopt eBirding as part of their annual celebrations were the Winter Wings Festival, held in February in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and the Godwit Days Spring Migration Bird Festival held in April in Arcata, California. These festivals first adopted eBirding as an integral part of their activities in 2008 in collaboration with Klamath Bird Observatory, who at that time created the regional eBird portal, Klamath-Siskiyou eBird. This portal celebrates the globally outstanding biodiversity of the Klamath-Siskiyou Bioregion of southern Oregon and northern California, and provides stories on the extensive conservation science efforts that have been developed in the region through the Klamath Bird Monitoring Network. This eBird Portal will soon be transformed into eBird Northwest, which will serve a broader geographical area while also acting as the citizen science application of Avian Knowledge Northwest. Avian Knowledge Northwest is a regional node of the Avian Knowledge Network that provides information from comprehensive datasets on birds and the environment for scientists, natural resource managers, and other individuals interested in conservation and science in the northwestern United States.
Between 2008 and 2013, the Winter Wings Festival in southwest Oregon logged 309 checklists documenting 195 species into the regional Klamath-Siskiyou eBird portal. During this same time period, the Godwit Days Festival in northwest California logged 449 checklists documenting 283 species. A new eBird Festival, the Mountain Bird Festival, will be hosted by Klamath Bird Observatory and held for the first time this spring in Ashland, Oregon. These festivals are nurturing citizen-driven conservation by promoting eBird among their festival attendees and by helping each attendee contribute to one of the largest and fastest growing biological data resources in existence, eBird.
eBird was launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society.
The Search for the Conservation Meme (10:00am – 10:25am)
Brandon M. Breen, Klamath Bird ObservatoryIn his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to illustrate how evolutionary principles could help us understand cultural change in human societies. Each cultural idea, or “meme,” experiences increases or decreases in its expression in a human culture based, at least in part, on its merit or fitness. From a conservation perspective, the question arises, Does there exist a conservation meme with the potential for widespread expression in Western culture? This talk will be an exploration of how evolutionary principles can help us understand the prospects for a culture of conservation in the 21st century.
Avian Knowledge Northwest: An Online Science Delivery Tool (10:45am – 11:10am)
John D. Alexander, Jaime L. Stephens, Brandon M. Breen, Klamath Bird ObservatoryAvian Knowledge Northwest, a regional node of the Avian Knowledge Network, provides information on birds and the environment for professionals engaged in natural resource management in the Pacific Northwest. The data center is designed to advance bird and habitat conservation through the efficient delivery of information, specifically to (1) bring in and archive data, (2) ensure the multitude of datasets are discoverable and readily available, (3) combine datasets for broad-scale analyses, such as future species abundance under climate change scenarios, and (4) build a community of data providers and users who collaboratively identify information needs to address conservation challenges. Avian Knowledge Northwest is integrated with eBird Northwest, an application that encourages contributions from a growing citizen science community.
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 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.