Applying the Science for Conservation
Although it represents a great excuse to go birding in the mountains, and provides plenty of interesting information about the ecology and natural history of the target species, Mountain Birdwatch was designed primarily to provide actionable information for conservation.
To encourage wide use of the results, we make the Mountain Birdwatch data open and available to everyone. Here are some highlights of how we and others have used the data collected by Mountain Birdwatch citizen-scientists to help conserve Bicknell’s Thrush.
Identifying Habitat for Bicknell’s Thrush
Scientists from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE) – Dan Lambert, Kent McFarland, Chris Rimmer and Steve Faccio, along with colleague Jon Atwood – used data from the early years of Mountain Birdwatch to document the habitat requirements of Bicknell’s Thrush. For the first time ever, these scientists were able to quantify the type of forest that Bicknell’s Thrush used for nesting. In doing so, they provided valuable information to land managers and conservation planners tasked with evaluating the environmental impacts of development in the high mountains of the northeast.
Mountain Birdwatch data were also used to identify particular features of mountain forests that are important for Bicknell’s Thrush. Sarah Frey, from Oregon State University, Allan Strong of the University of Vermont, and VCE scientist Kent McFarland found that Bicknell’s Thrush needed not only suitable habitat – dense stands of short balsam fir with many dead trees, both fallen and standing – but that habitat patches needed to be large and widely distributed across a mountain. In other words, conserving Bicknell’s Thrush means maintaining many large patches of suitable habitat.
More recently, VCE scientists Jason Hill and John Lloyd have fine-tuned the original habitat model. Using Mountain Birdwatch data collected between 2011 and 2016, they demonstrate not only where Bicknell’s Thrush live during the summer, but how many of them live in any particular location. This provides even more actionable information for land-use planners and those interested in conserving key habitat areas for Bicknell’s Thrush. These data and analyses also provided, for the first time, a quantitative estimate of the total number of Bicknell’s Thrush living in the United States.
Evaluating the Effectiveness of Conservation Action for Bicknell’s Thrush
The citizen-science behind Mountain Birdwatch plays a key role in international efforts to conserve Bicknell’s Thrush.
The International Bicknell’s Thrush Conservation Group, an international coalition of scientists, natural-resource managers, and conservation planners, is responsible for developing and implementing a strategy for conserving Bicknell’s Thrush. The goals of the conservation strategy are to increase population size by 25% by 2060 while maintaining or increasing the number of breeding populations.
Measuring the success of the conservation strategy depends on careful monitoring of Bicknell’s Thrush populations, which is where Mountain Birdwatch comes in. As the only region-wide source of population information on high-elevation breeding birds in the northeastern United States, Mountain Birdwatch has been adopted as the official population-monitoring tool of the International Bicknell’s Thrush Conservation Group.
Protecting Mountain Landscapes
The Trust for Public Land has relied on the habitat maps of Bicknell’s Thrush generated by Mountain Birdwatch to identify important areas for conservation in the High Peaks region of Western Maine and in locations across Vermont.
For example, in 2013, The Trust for Public Land purchased 12,000 acres at Crocker Mountain – now owned by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands – to help protect high-elevation forest habitat for Bicknell’s Thrush. The area is now an ecological reserve, in large part due to its importance as breeding habitat for Bicknell’s Thrush and other mountain birds. The value of this area as an intact block of habitat for Bicknell’s Thrush would not have been known without the data collected by Mountain Birdwatch.
In Vermont, The Trust for Public Land conserved more than 2,000 acres adjacent to Camel’s Hump State Park in Vermont based in part on the value of the area as breeding habitat for Bicknell’s Thrush, and is currently using Mountain Birdwatch data to identify conservation opportunities in the Worcester Range of central Vermont.
Identifying Species At Risk
Mountain Birdwatch plays a key role in Bicknell’s Thrush conservation. However, because we track populations of many mountain birds, the data collected by Mountain Birdwatch also informs conservation efforts for other species.
A good example of a broad application of Mountain Birdwatch data comes from a recent scientific paper that examined population-trends for 14 bird species that nest in mountain forests of spruce and fir. Using data from the first 10 years of Mountain Birdwatch, Joel Ralston and his colleagues – including former VCE scientist Judith Scarl – documented population declines among species that depended on mountain forests for breeding habitat. This group included three Mountain Birdwatch species: Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Bicknell’s Thrush, and Blackpoll Warbler.
In the words of the authors, the results of this study “confirm and extend species-specific conservation concern within the spruce-fir forest community and identify species for which additional attention may be needed”.
Have you used Mountain Birdwatch data to help promote conservation of mountain birds and their habitat? If so, let us know!