Migration – Wildlife on the Move

March 2020

Calendars show the New Year beginning on January 1, but that first wave of geese clattering across a March sky begs to differ. Spring migration makes our hearts leap with the feeling that now, on a blustery March day that can’t decide whether to snow or rain, now the year feels new. This month, our web features stories about a scientist, research, and a partnership all focusing on birds and migrating home.

Environmental Education

Monarch butterfly. Photo by Anne-Marie Conard.Monarch butterflies are one of our most spectacular migratory insects. Click on the monarch above to learn more, including citizen science efforts to monitor monarchs and their habitat.

Featured Scientist

Susannah Lerman

Susannah Lerman sits on a bench near water with several Canada geese in the background.As a child growing up on a 200-year-old farm in Massachusetts, Susannah Lerman was fascinated by her family’s cats and dogs and what motivated their behavior. While her interest has shifted from the behavior of domestic animals to wildlife, observing animals is now a professional interest. The thing that surprises Lerman is the location of her research.

“My colleagues tell me about going into the woods for their work; I am at the intersection of Fourth and Main,” Lerman said. “I never imagined that I would spend my time driving around cities.”

As part of the Communities and Landscapes of the Urban Northeast research work unit in Massachusetts, Lerman is interested in the ecological role of residential backyards and other urban greenspace, places largely ignored by traditional ecologists. “There are so many opportunities for discovery in cities,” Lerman said. “Sometimes I go in with low expectations, and then I see something I do not expect, like a pileated woodpecker close to the city center, and I am always blown away.”

Lerman’s path to a career in science was anything but linear. After college, she spent time in California, where she began learning about wildlife and habitat issues and began teaching herself to identify birds. She went to Israel to work on a kibbutz, where a common bird, the Little Green Bee-eater secured her fascination with birds. During the mid to late 90s, she was a professional birding guide in Israel, which is the second largest flyway in the world. An opportunity to do field work for a friend’s study in Phoenix, AZ, drew her back to the United States, where she ultimately earned a doctoral degree in organismal and evolutionary biology with a focus in urban ecology.

As a post-doc and then as a research ecologist, Lerman’s Forest Service research has resonated with people, particularly her research on how the relationship between the frequency of lawn mowing and abundance of native bee species (she found mowing every other week increases the number of bees). “Hearing from people who are interested in helping wildlife, and who are using my research to change how they manage their lawns, is so exciting,” Lerman said. “This is why I went into public service.”

In addition to understanding how residential landscapes can also serve wildlife, Lerman is finding a lot of satisfaction in mentoring other women as they pursue careers in science. “I had some fantastic women role models and now feel like I am at that stage where I can mentor younger women, and that has been really rewarding,” she said.

More information about Susannah Lerman >>

Featured Research

Small Diversified Farms in Southern New England are Hotspots for Bird Conservation

Sarah Brofsky, clipboard in hand and binoculars ready, conducts a point count for birds on a small farm.Across the United States, bird populations are declining due to decreases in availability of habitat. Urbanization, intensive agriculture, and certain forest management practices are contributing to this decline. In New England, however, a trend toward more small organic farms is helping to diversify the landscape, which is good news for birds and bird lovers.

A resurgence of public demand and support for local, sustainable food production is driving a trend toward small organic farms, especially in New England where the number of organic farms has quadrupled, from 349 in 2002 to 1,667 in 2017. These small farms provide a diversified landscape that mimics habitat features supporting many bird species.

Dave King, a research wildlife biologist with the Northern Research Station who has a long-standing interest in bird habitat, worked with graduate student Isabel Brofsky at the University of Massachusetts to conduct a systematic survey of birds and habitat characteristics on small farms in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts.

Among the 59 species of birds encountered on the farms were song sparrows, willow flycatchers, northern mockingbirds, yellow-billed cuckoos, bobolinks and killdeer. All six species were more abundant on farms compared to other habitat types. “Many of these species have been undergoing significant declines according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, so their presence on farms represents a real conservation opportunity,” said King.
The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), which has an interest in enhancing biodiversity on working farms. The findings will serve as a basis for NRCS staff to communicate with local farmers about ways to promote bird conservation on their farms. “This project would not have been possible without the collaboration and support of our sister agency the NRCS and of course the many hardworking farmers who allowed us to conduct research on their properties,” said King.

Featured Partnership

Pine-oak Woodlands Restoration Benefits Bird Species of Concern

Pine-oak woodland.This August, the brown-headed nuthatch will return to Missouri. This tiny bird, that zig zags up and down southern pine trees in search of insects to eat, prefers woodland habitat, the open, park-like pine and pine-oak forests that dominated the landscape before European settlement. Intensive logging at the turn of the 20th century, and decades of wildfire suppression, led to widespread conversion of woodland habitat to mature forest habitat, a concern for managers of the diverse wildlife communities supported by more open woodland conditions.

The nuthatch can return because a broad coalition of land managers and scientists across southern Missouri are nearing the tenth year of a collaborative forest restoration project to return pine and pine-oak woodlands, which occur on less than 10 percent of their original footprint, to nearly 100,000 acres of the Missouri Ozarks region. “We brought in the Northern Research Station from the beginning,” said Mark Twain National Forest Botanist Brian Davidson. Birds are a key monitoring group for assessing success of this effort. Northern Research Station Research Wildlife Biologist Frank Thompson studies the effects of land management on forest songbirds. With University of Missouri graduate student Melissa Roach and others, Thompson’s work shows restoration practices such as thinning and prescribed fire benefit both abundance and reproductive success of early-successional and generalist bird species. Additional research is helping the forest identify areas to create connectivity in habitats across the landscape.

Restoration isn’t only helping wildlife. The work also helps fund recreation programs on the forest and diversifies the markets for wood products. Recreation and wood products economies associated with the Mark Twain National Forest contribute approximately $300 million dollars to Missouri’s economy each year, according to Cody Norris, the public affairs officer on the forest.

More information about how scientists and managers resolved conflicts, and the ecological and economic impacts of restoration >>
Last updated: 02/28/2020