If you build it, the birds will come—if it meets their criteria

Condor-17-221_CAGN_Andrew Fisher

California Gnatcatchers need more than just the right vegetation. Photo credit: A. Fisher

A study published in The Condor: Ornithological Applications presents a case study on how bird surveys can better inform conservation and vegetation restoration efforts. Previous conservation methods have emphasized plants as the key to recreating habitat preferred by a sensitive animal. However, this study shows that there’s more to the coastal sagebrush habitat of California Gnatcatchers than just having the right plants present. Abiotic components such as topography and soil are important drivers of the biotic components, including plants, which pair together to make the complete ecosystem these birds need. Given this more complete perspective, future conservation efforts would be wise to consider all of the variables that make up an animal’s habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Clark Winchell and Colorado State University’s Paul F. Doherty, Jr., set out to find a way to improve the traditional “single-species-oriented” conservation plan. They used bird survey data to more accurately identify favorable habitat for California Gnatcatcher occupancy and discovered that as the ratio of coastal sagebrush increased from 10% to 40%, the probability of colonization and presence of these birds tripled. The amount of openness in the sagebrush habitat also correlated with the birds’ occupancy probability (30-40% openness was ideal for the birds). Elevation and soil texture also influenced suitable habitat, with lower elevations and loam or sandy loam soils most preferred. Winchell and Doherty also found that the gnatcatchers preferred southern aspects, shallow slopes, and inland areas over other options. Being so detailed and using such a fine scale allowed more specific areas to be identified as suitable for gnatcatchers. Thorough research such as this will better aid conservation efforts, both by informing where restoration might be most successful and by providing restoration targets.

Winchell comments, “Restoration ecologists are generally not gnatcatcher biologists, and vice versa. Sometimes we tend to place restoration projects where land becomes available after political negotiations. We may want to consider what is that parcel of land trying to tell us—what does the land want to be, so to speak—versus assuming we can dictate the final outcome for a location. Considering the entire functionality of the surrounding ecosystem, including the physical components, the biological community, and understanding the dynamism of the ecosystem will lead to improved restoration and wildlife management outcomes and our study is one small step in that direction.”

These results correlating soil, vegetation, and gnatcatcher occupancy harken back to lessons that Aldo Leopold taught us—namely, to start with the land and work with the land when managing wildlife. Leopold’s holistic approach to conservation included the soils, waters, plants, and animals and is still relevant today.

Restoring habitat for coastal California gnatcatchers (Polioptila californica californica) is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-17-221.1.

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology, published by the American Ornithological Society. For the past two years, The Condor has had the number one impact factor among 27 ornithology journals.

Piping Plovers want people to get off their lawn

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Banded Piping Plover in non-breeding plumage (Photo Credit: Kelley Luikey)

A new study in The Condor: Ornithological Applications presents negative associations between anthropogenic disturbance (human recreational use of beaches, coastal modifications) and Piping Plovers on their non-breeding grounds. Shorebirds are one of the most threatened bird families in the world. Numerous studies have shown the negative impacts of humans on these birds, whether it be large-scale (e.g., habitat loss, climate change) or small-scale (e.g., ATV use, running with pets, flying kites). This research indicates that there are direct consequences of disturbance. Most Piping Plover research has focused on the breeding season in an attempt to directly influence population numbers, however this study argues that efforts are required throughout the year in all locations to assist Piping Plover conservation.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University’s Dan Gibson and colleagues monitored Piping Plovers year-round to determine the health and behavior of individuals. Body condition, survival, and site fidelity were of most interest. Plovers in disturbed areas proved to be significantly lighter in mass, due to the birds not procuring enough food. Given poorer body condition, it should be no surprise that birds in these disturbed areas also had lower survival rates. Piping plovers have strong site fidelity on the breeding grounds and this study supports that fidelity continues on the non-breeding grounds. While physically capable of changing location, it was not common for individuals to do so even if there was a high level of disturbance. The lack of movement by disturbed individuals suggests that aspects of the species’ life history (i.e. fidelity) constrained individuals to make seemingly adaptive habitat-use decisions. Some of the strategies used on the breeding grounds (reduced human recreation, roped-off areas, no dogs on beaches) may be beneficial to also do on the non-breeding grounds to ensure year-round conservation and oversight on this threatened shorebird species.

Lead author Dan Gibson comments, “We have a lot of of opportunity to engage with the public in what exactly our research is about. We often try to stress that the impact an individual recreationist has on a shorebird is practically non-existent. However, if every person who uses a beach in a given day influences how these shorebirds feed or rest, those minute impacts can begin to add up over the course of a season that can manifest itself as reductions in individual body condition and ultimately their ability to withstand bad weather conditions or successfully migrate and find a mate. We try to stress that small changes in how we use a beach (e.g., keep dogs on leash, avoid running through groups of birds) can really add up to substantial improvements in the overall quality of coastal habitat for shorebirds.”

“This study availed itself of a unique resource that range-wide banding efforts have provided for the study of the demographics of the endangered piping plover,” adds College of Environmental Science and Forestry Associate Professor Jonathan Cohen, a shorebird expert who was not involved with the research, “and successfully attempted the difficult task of teasing out the sometimes subtle effect of disturbance in nonbreeding areas on annual vital rates.  The finding that this endangered species may not readily abandon habitat that is detrimental for fitness was surprising, and warrants immediate attention from the conservation community.”

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Impacts of anthropogenic disturbance on a non-breeding shorebird’s body condition, survival, and site fidelity is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-17-148.1.

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology published by the American Ornithological Society. The journal began in 1899, and in 2016 The Condor had the number one impact factor among 24 ornithology journals.

Nominees for BioOne Ambassador Award

The Auk and The Condor have each nominated a recent author for BioOne’s inaugural Ambassador Award, which will recognize “early career authors working to communicate the importance and impact of their focused research to communities beyond their fields of expertise.” Each of up to five winners will receive a $1000 cash award. More information can be found on BioOne’s website.

The Auk has nominated Emily Williams, lead author of the recent paper Patterns and correlates of within-season breeding dispersal: A common strategy in a declining grassland songbird (press release).

The Condor has nominated Andrew Dennhardt, lead author of the paper Applying citizen-science data and mark–recapture models to estimate numbers of migrant Golden Eagles in an Important Bird Area in eastern North America (press release).

We wish Emily and Andrew luck as the selection process for the awards continues!

Are Flamingos Returning to Florida?

CONDOR-17-187 J Patterson

American Flamingos should be considered native to Florida, argue the authors of a new review. Photo credit: J. Patterson

Flamingos are a Florida cultural icon, and sightings of American Flamingos in the state have been on the rise in recent decades. However, whether they’re truly native to the U.S. or only arrive via escape from captivity has long been subject to debate, making developing a plan for managing Florida’s flamingo population challenging. A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications reviews the evidence and provides a fresh argument that the birds should be considered part of the Sunshine State’s native fauna.

Zoo Miami’s Steven Whitfield, along with colleagues from Audubon Florida’s Everglades Science Center, the National Park Service, Big Cypress National Preserve, and the Rookery Bay Estuarine Research Reserve, reexamined the historical evidence of flamingos in Florida and evaluated the likely origins of birds seen in recent years. Overall, they conclude, the evidence from both narrative accounts and museum records suggests that American Flamingos once occurred naturally in large flocks in Florida and probably even nested there before being eliminated by hunting around 1900. From 1950 to the present, however, birdwatchers have reported almost 500 new observations of flamingos in Florida, with both flock size and the frequency of observations increasing over time. While it’s plausible that some of these individuals could be escapees from captive flocks, there is also strong evidence for dispersal from wild populations in Mexico and the Caribbean.

The population history Whitfield and his coauthors describe is consistent with that of some native species already protected by state and federal endangered species laws, and they hope that their study will lead to a better plan for managing wild flamingos in Florida. “Living in Florida, you see flamingos everywhere—in advertising, in place names, even on the logo for the state lottery—but as an actual organism, as a species, there was essentially no information available on the biology of flamingos,” says Whitfield. “Some biologists considered them native birds that were extirpated during the plume trade of the late 1800s, and urged for population recovery measures, while others considered the rare flamingos seen around Florida to be escapes from captive colonies. We often say that in south Florida we have just two types of species, introduced and endangered, but a species can’t be both at the same time.”

“This article finally sheds welcome light on status of these iconic birds in Florida. The authors meticulously researched historic records and compiled more recent sightings to reconstruct the history and population trends of flamingos in Florida,” adds the American Museum of Natural History’s Felicity Arengo, a flamingo conservation expert who was not involved in the study. “Flamingo numbers have increased notably since the 1950s due to protections to species and habitats in Florida and throughout the Caribbean. The authors are cautious and recognize the limitations of the data in their study, but they provide ample evidence that Florida was the northernmost extent of the American Flamingo prior to the early 1900s and that populations have been recovering.”

Status and trends of American Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) in Florida, USA is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-17-187.1.

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology. It began in 1899 as the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Club, a group of ornithologists in California that became the Cooper Ornithological Society, which merged with the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2016 to become the American Ornithological Society. In 2016, The Condor had the number one impact factor among 24 ornithology journals.

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Fracking Tied to Reduced Songbird Nesting Success

CONDOR-17-130 M Frantz

A researcher handles a Louisiana Waterthrush chick. Photo credit: M. Frantz

The central Appalachian region is experiencing the country’s most rapid growth in shale gas development, or “fracking,” but we’ve known almost nothing about how this is affecting the region’s songbird populations—until now. A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications demonstrates that the nesting success of the Louisiana Waterthrush—a habitat specialist that nests along forested streams, where the potential for habitat degradation is high—is declining at sites impacted by shale gas development in northwestern West Virginia.

West Virginia University’s Mack Frantz and his colleagues mapped waterthrush territories and monitored nests along 14 streams from 2009 to 2011 and again from 2013 to 2015. They also mapped and measured disturbances to streams and to the forest canopy, using aerial photographs and satellite imagery as well as extensive ground-truthing, and classifying them according to whether they were related to shale gas development. Their results show that as shale gas development has expanded in the area, nest survival and productivity and riparian habitat quality have declined. At the same time, the size of individual waterthrush territories has increased, suggesting birds need to range farther to find sufficient resources. This study is one of the first to demonstrate that shale gas development can affect songbird reproductive success and productivity, both directly through the presence of fracking infrastructure and indirectly through effects on habitat quality.

“I hope our findings lead to robust protections of our forested headwater stream ecosystems, which are currently overlooked for regulation despite their critical role in providing nutrients and organic matter downstream, not to mention as an important source for drinking water,” says Frantz. “Waterthrushes are a modern-day ‘canary in the coal mine,’ and there are many more opportunities to study how anthropogenic disturbance affects and entangles food webs at the aquatic–terrestrial interface.”

“After twelve years of research conducted with this species, I have seen the numerous impacts hydraulic fracturing has had on waterthrush survival and the toll that the industry has had on our nation’s wild places and wildlife,” adds Louisiana State University-Alexandria’s Leesia Marshall, a waterthrush expert who was not involved in the Condor study. “This paper should serve as a call for all scientists to redouble efforts across all related disciplines to document the present impacts of shale gas extraction and to develop strategies for mitigation and avoidance of potential impacts in the future.”

Demographic response of Louisiana Waterthrush, a stream obligate songbird of conservation concern, to shale gas development is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-17-130.1.

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology. It began in 1899 as the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Club, a group of ornithologists in California that became the Cooper Ornithological Society, which merged with the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2016 to become the American Ornithological Society. In 2016, The Condor had the number one impact factor among 24 ornithology journals.

Endangered Woodpeckers Persist, but Still Struggle, on Private Land

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Red-cockaded Woodpeckers nesting on private land continue to face challenges. Photo credit: B. Beck

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started the Safe Harbor program in North Carolina in 1995 to reduce conflict between landowners and conservation officials and to encourage private landowners to take steps to benefit endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers on their land. The program has successfully reduced conflict over conservation and reduced the abandonment of nest clusters, but a new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications shows that while the program may have raised landowners’ awareness of and tolerance for their feathered neighbors, it has largely failed to improve breeding success of birds on private lands.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University’s Jennifer Smith and her colleagues compared Red-cockaded Woodpeckers’ breeding success on Safe Harbor properties before and after enrollment with that on control properties, monitoring a total of 55 breeding clusters in the North Carolina Sandhills between 1980 and 2014. Nest cluster abandonment increased on control properties while remaining constant and negligible on Safe Harbor properties, but other measures of breeding success such as clutch size, nest failure rates, and fledging success were unaffected by Safe Harbor habitat management efforts. These results suggest that the Safe Harbor program often failed to maintain or increase high-quality foraging habitat for the birds.

Regular fires are essential for maintaining high-quality Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat, and prescribed burns are not feasible on a large proportion of Safe Harbor properties in the Sandhills due to their proximity to residential areas. In addition, the researchers believe that inadequate funding may have limited the Safe Harbor program’s impact. However, they believe the program and the monitoring efforts that have accompanied it still have value. “The longevity of the research project combined with the initiation of Safe Harbor has had marked benefits because it has allowed us to build relationships with private landowners,” says Kerry Brust, co-author of the paper. “Exchanges with private landowners have presented an ideal opportunity to draw attention to the listed species and the management needed for the persistence of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.”

“This study identifies the great value that Safe Harbor has brought to Red-cockaded Woodpecker conservation but also highlights important and daunting limitations of the program,” according to U.S. Forest Service biologist John Kilgo, who works on Red-cockaded Woodpecker conservation and was not involved in the study. “As these are primarily related to funding constraints and less stringent habitat management requirements under the program, new and creative approaches will be required if the effectiveness of Safe Harbor is to be improved.”

How effective is the Safe Harbor program for the conservation of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers? is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-17-113.1.

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology. It began in 1899 as the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Club, a group of ornithologists in California that became the Cooper Ornithological Society, which merged with the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2016 to become the American Ornithological Society. In 2016, The Condor had the number one impact factor among 24 ornithology journals.

Timing of Spring Birdsong Provides Climate Insights

CONDOR-17-165 M McGrann

Hermit Warblers are among the species monitored for a new study of the timing of spring birdsong. Photo credit: M. McGrann

Climate change has scientists worried that birds’ annual migration and reproduction will be thrown out of sync with the seasons. Because birds’ songs are correlated with their breeding behavior and are easily identifiable to species, monitoring birdsong can be a good way to keep tabs on this possibility, and a new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications takes advantage of this approach to provide new baseline data for the birds of northern California.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife Brett Furnas and William Jessup University’s Michael McGrann analyzed data from two bird survey programs from California’s Klamath Mountains and Southern Cascades, both of which used automated recorders to monitor bird sounds between 2009 and 2011. In addition to providing the first comprehensive assessment of songbird occupancy over a 40,000 square kilometer region of northern California, they were able to identify the precise dates of peak vocal activity for eight songbird species, and their work shows that this will be a feasible method to track advances in the timing of vocal activity over the coming decades. Species characterized by strong single peaks in vocal activity already tended to reach those peaks later than other species, perhaps because birds with tightly constrained timing are less able to adapt to changing climatic conditions.

“Climate change is disrupting songbird populations, distributions, and breeding behaviors in our mountain ecosystems. Mountains are particularly sensitive because temperature and precipitation interact in complex ways on mountains,” says McGrann. “If Neotropical migrants are unable to adjust their breeding behaviors, then there may be a mismatch in the timing of raising their young to the peak availability in food resources, namely insects. Our technique should allow us to track shifts in elevation, changes in the state of the population, and changes in breeding behaviors in response to climate change over the next ten to twenty years.”

“Furnas and McGrann provide a textbook example of how to detect differences in the timing of nesting among bird species using information on the peak date of singing derived from surveys and automated recorders,” according to UC Berkeley’s Steve Beissinger, an expert on avian phenology who was not involved in the study. “Their results support recent findings of a five to twelve day shift forward in the timing of peak singing by California birds in the nearby Sierra Nevada and coastal ranges in response to climate change.”

Using occupancy modeling to monitor dates of peak vocal activity for passerines in California is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-17-165.1.

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology. It began in 1899 as the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Club, a group of ornithologists in California that became the Cooper Ornithological Society, which merged with the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2016 to become the American Ornithological Society. In 2016, The Condor had the number one impact factor among 24 ornithology journals.

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