Researchers look to Maine’s North Woods to learn lessons about bird protection

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Thirty years ago, when a paper mill was undertaking a massive 15,000-acre clear-cut near Moosehead Lake, a team of bird researchers had an idea.

They wanted to document how songbirds are affected by commercial forestry practices across a wide landscape.

The results surprised them. They discovered that birds and logging can co-exist with different ages and types of trees. Now, with the bird population plummeting in the United States, the team is back to documenting how Maine’s North Woods may offer hope for their survival.

It’s late June, around 4 a.m., when Jonah Levy and Jalen Winstanley, barely awake, pile into their work truck and head for the woods.

Each morning, the two searchers, both in their twenties, come out before the birds wake up and begin their full-throated chorus at dawn.

They are part of several teams monitoring 300 different sites in this region across different forest habitats. On that day they will be counting birds just outside of Greenville on the east side of Moosehead Lake. Joining them is ornithologist and project director John Hagan of Our Climate Common.

It was part of the original study in 1992 that covered one million acres.

“Birds have declined by about 30% on the continent since we did the initial study,” Hagan says. “The forest has changed a lot. Before, we were talking about a lot of clearcuts back then. There isn’t much left at all now.”

A 1993 photo of Ragmuff’s clearcut.
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The Ragmuff cut blank in 2020.

There are fewer paper companies now and clearcutting is limited to 250 acres. But Hagan says clearcutting has been replaced by partial harvesting operations, meaning more of the forest is regularly cut each year. But the Ragmuff clearcut, the 15,000 acres that were harvested in the early 1990s, is now covered in trees.

“So we want to know what all of this change means for bird conservation and that’s why we’re back,” Hagan said.

The team parks the truck along a dirt road and walks 100 meters through dense, dark woods, dripping with light rain. It is a mature hardwood forest. The trees are old and tall and there is a lush, enclosed canopy above. At the first stop Winstanley sets a timer for 10 minutes and at the first flash the countdown begins.

Each survey site covers a radius of 50 meters. Anything larger and accuracy suffers. This is because the whole recording, each bird, is identified by its call. Counting therefore requires precision and experience.

Jonah Levy describes falling in love with bird calls after a friend’s mother shared a video of 30 common summer bird songs in the Northeast.

“And I vividly remember the songs of the black-throated warbler and the ant bird coming up and having this kind of epiphany that I’d heard every summer day in my entire life and I had never never knew what they were,” Levy said. “I wanted to know what all the other voices were in the forest and that’s an ongoing project.”

Levy is now a PhD student studying the relationship between land use and birds. After 10 minutes, the two compare notes on what they heard inside and just outside the 50-meter site.

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Cornell Ornithology Lab

An adult black warbler.
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Cornell Ornithology Lab

An adult Warbler bird.

“A few black-throated greens in,” Levy said. “The scarlet tanager was really nice. The black-throated blue in it.”

“Yeah,” Winstanley confirms. “The hermit thrush,” continues Levy. “Yeah.” “Lost Warbler…”

The data will be used to make comparisons with the previous study and with bird populations in the rest of the country. So far, Levy says, they’ve identified half a dozen new species that weren’t present in this region 30 years ago because their typical range was 100 miles south. There are also several previously detected species that have yet to be found.

“As of right, I think those three are the three-toed woodpecker, the Philadelphia vireo, and the wood thrush, and I don’t think any of them were particularly abundant in the landscape there. is 30,” says Levy.

It is therefore possible that the birds simply did not appear in their random sampling of the landscape. But that’s the purpose of this three-year study: to find out which species are gaining ground and which are declining.

The steep decline in numbers in recent decades is thought to be the result of habitat fragmentation and development, loss of wintering grounds, pollution and, of course, climate change.

Winstanley says he can’t imagine the voices of songbirds disappearing from the forest.

“We are entangled with these species in ways that we don’t fully understand yet,” Winstanley says. “If you were to remove the birds from the ecosystem, you lose some of the ecosystem services that basically make the whole forest work. And once the forest stops working, everything stops working.”

He adds: “Ultimately, our destinies are entangled, so if they fall, we sink with them.”

Back in the forest, Winstanley says to Jonah, “Okay, shall I take the flags down and lead the way?”

Levy responds, “Sure, yes, that sounds good. We can see a little better now.”

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John Hagan

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Our common climate

A researcher collects bird data in the North Woods of Maine.

By late morning, the crew have recorded birds at five different sites and return to meet with the rest of the team at one of the homes they share in Greenville.

It’s the gateway to Maine’s North Woods, the largest unfragmented forest east of the Mississippi River and at 12 million acres, one of the largest temperate forests in the world. It is also considered an Important Bird Area of ​​Global Significance by the National Audubon Society.

“Honestly, I’m reassured because I think this is a really important study,” says Hannah Mirando, a recent college graduate who has studied birds in the United States and around the world.

She is encouraged that major landowners Weyerhauser, Landvest, Huber Resources and the Appalachian Mountain Club are partners in the three-year project. As timber managers, they are able to respond to what research shows is beneficial for biodiversity and for birds.

“Logging and timber seems like a very negative environmental thing, but I don’t think it necessarily has to be,” Mirando says. “We should work together towards our two goals.”

Data collected over the past two summers will be analyzed over the coming months.

Mirando says she’s especially excited to see how the results affect forest management, but also how they might influence other collaborative conservation projects in the future.

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