Author: harry fuller

Select songbirds represent a broader suite of species and vegetation

The study of natural areas can improve our understanding of plants and animals that occupy different habitats. Land managers need this kind of information for making decisions about how best to manage, restore, or protect their lands. However, it is not possible to measure each aspect of biodiversity. Studying one or several species to better understand the natural area as a whole is a common, but relatively understudied, practice. In the Pacific Northwest, Partners in Flight – a broad partnership aimed at conserving bird populations – has been using birds as focal species for nearly 20 years. The premise is that a suite of songbird species that are closely tied to key habitat features will represent many other bird species and other elements of biodiversity.

New research examines the focal species approach

Scientists from Klamath Bird Observatory and the Klamath Inventory and Monitoring Network of the National Park Service teamed up to think about how the focal species approach is being applied to six national parks in southern Oregon and northern California. Specifically, we examined whether the Partners in Flight focal species, which are derived from expert opinions and knowledge of birds and their habitats, did a good job at representing three additional management concerns: 1) vegetation, 2) other songbirds, and 3) more specifically, songbirds in decline. We then tested whether we could develop a focal species list from existing park-specific bird surveys that would do a better job at representing the other groups. The results were recently published in the scientific journal Ecological Applications in an article titled Established and Empirically Derived Landbird Focal Species Lists Correlate with Vegetation and Avian Metrics (CLICK HERE TO SEE THE PUBLICATION).

Why does this matter?

If focal species do a good job at representing other groups of birds or vegetation, then the list can help land managers make better decisions about natural areas. Deciding which correlations are most important will depend on the management question at hand. For example, with vegetation management, if focal species are highly correlated with other songbirds and vegetation, managers can confidently apply their knowledge about the focal species to planning needs, such as developing a restoration strategy.

What have we learned?

Partners in Flight focal species represented three other components of biodiversity (all songbirds combined, songbirds in decline, and vegetation) in some, but not all, instances. We found that the Partners in Flight focal species did a good job of representing other songbirds at four of the six national parks. For all parks combined, the focal species developed from park-specific bird surveys improved correlation, showing the most notable improvement at Crater Lake National Park, where the existing focal species did not correlate strongly with the other groups. In contrast to the close association with songbirds generally, the Partners in Flight focal species lists represented songbirds in decline at only two of the parks. It is likely that species in decline have different habitat needs or experience different threats than the focal species.

<img src="http://klamathbird.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Mountain-Chickadee_cropped-c-Jim-Livaudais-72-dpi-3×2.jpg" alt="" class="wp-image-4930" width="243" height="168" title="The Mountain Chickadee was selected for the focal species list at Lassen Volcanic National Park when data from park-specific bird surveys were used. Photo credit James Livaudais.” />

What’s next?

Partners in Flight focal species lists are based on breeding season habitat needs, but food and habitat outside of the breeding season are also critically important for birds. For example, understanding how seasonal habitat and food needs relate to songbird health and ability to produce young, and how climate interacts with those, may inform conservation of declining species. Adding focal species that can represent limitations or threats outside of the breeding season may expand the use of this approach in the context of widespread bird population declines. Further, continued long-term monitoring in the parks is critical to understanding both whether local bird populations show similar dynamics as the same species at regional and national scales, and if so, the reasons why.

NEWS RELEASE: Studying select songbirds paints a broader picture of overall ecosystem health

*** News Release: March 12, 2019***

Jaime Stephens, Science Director, Klamath Bird Observatory, 541-944-2890, jlh@klamathbird.org

Ashland, OR – A new study on songbirds in the Pacific Northwest, released on March 11th, empirically tests the use of focal species as indicators of ecosystem health.

Focal species are often monitored to understand overall ecosystem health and thereby inform and improve natural resource management. However, few studies have empirically tested how well this approach works. The new study, Established and empirically derived landbird focal species lists correlate with vegetation and avian metrics, published by scientists at Klamath Bird Observatory and the Klamath Inventory and Monitoring Network of the National Park Service, tested the focal species approach against site-specific empirical data and found that a suite of bird focal species represented other birds and vegetation in some, but not all instances, and the application of focal species may be improved with more site-specific data.

In the Pacific Northwest, Partners in Flight (PIF) – a broad partnership aimed at conserving bird populations – has been using birds as focal species for nearly 20 years. The premise of the focal species approach is that a suite of songbird species that are closely tied to key habitat features will represent many other bird species and other elements of biodiversity. The study, published in the scientific journal Ecological Applications (CLICK HERE TO SEE THE PUBLICATION), used data from six national parks in southern Oregon and northern California to evaluate the focal species approach in the Pacific Northwest. Specifically, the study examined whether PIF focal species represented three broader ecosystem components of biodiversity: vegetation, other songbirds, and more specifically, songbirds in decline. The researchers then tested whether they could develop a focal species list from existing park-specific bird surveys that would do a better job at representing the broader suite of species and vegetation.

“If focal species do a good job at representing others aspects of biodiversity, then we can confidently apply them to decisions about managing natural areas. In this time of unprecedented human altered environments, ensuring that the best available science informs decision-making in an efficient manner is crucial,” explains Jaime Stephens, KBO’s Science Director and lead author of this paper. Jaime suggests that this study identifies not only how this approach can be useful to land managers, but importantly, also the limitations of the focal species approach.

The research team found that PIF focal species represented the broader suite of species and vegetation in some, but not all, instances. For example, Partners in Flight focal species did a good job of representing other songbirds at four of the six national parks included in the study. For all parks combined, the new focal species developed from the park-specific bird surveys were slightly better at representing other songbirds, with more improvement in some parks than others.

In contrast to the close association of focal species with the group of all songbirds combined, the PIF focal species represented songbirds in decline at only two of the parks. John Alexander, KBO Executive Director and a co-author of the study, highlights that “It is likely that the species in decline experience different threats than the focal species.” Alexander goes on to explain that these underrepresented declining species may face threats when they leave the parks during the migration – the focal species are chosen to help understand conditions in each park where the songbirds breed.

“I’ve worked through many uses of indicator and focal species approaches as a way for us to “see” and perhaps improve how a system works, and this is among the best approaches I know,” says PIF National Coordinator Bob Ford. He adds, “This approach provides a blueprint for how multi indicator species can be applied to advance conservation in other North American biomes.” He believes this is an important part of the PIF toolbox, adding value to the full lifecycle approaches that PIF applies to addressing conservation needs for priority and declining species.

This study, funded by the National Park Service Inventory and Monitoring Program, takes advantage of the first decade of long-term bird monitoring in the six national parks of the Klamath Network. This monitoring program was designed to answer pressing questions for park managers and local conservation practitioners over the short-term, while monitoring long-term trends in bird populations over the long term. “Our long time partners at KBO provide valuable expertise that allows us to extend the value of our datasets and answer important questions that support natural resource stewardship in Klamath Network parks and beyond,” says Alice Chung-MacCoubrey, the NPS Klamath Network Inventory and Monitoring Program Manager. Continued long-term monitoring in the parks is critical to understanding local bird population dynamics in comparison to trends for the same species at regional and national scales.

Jaime Stephens, Science Director, Klamath Bird Observatory, 541-944-2890, jlh@klamathbird.org

Click here to download a zipped press package: News Release – Studying select songbirds

Click here to download a PDF of this news release: News Release – Studying select songbirds

###

About Klamath Bird Observatory:
Klamath Bird Observatory advances bird and habitat conservation through science, education, and partnerships. We achieve bird conservation in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the migratory ranges of the birds of our region. We developed our award-winning conservation model in the ruggedly beautiful and wildlife-rich Klamath-Siskiyou Bioregion of southern Oregon and northern California. Emphasizing high caliber science and the role of birds as indicators of the health of the land, we specialize in cost-effective bird monitoring and research projects that improve natural resource management. Also, recognizing that conservation occurs across many fronts, we nurture a conservation ethic in our communities through our outreach and educational programs. Visit Klamath Bird Observatory at www.klamathbird.org.

About Klamath Inventory and Monitoring Network of the National Park Service:
The Klamath Network tracks the ecological health of six national park units in southern Oregon and northern California. We inventory park natural resources and then regularly monitor the condition of a carefully selected subset, called “vital signs,” at Crater Lake NP, Lava Beds NM, Whiskeytown NRA, Lassen Volcanic NP, Redwood National and State Parks, and Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve. Our small staff of scientists partners with park scientists and other organizations to monitor nine vital signs: cave environments and communities, rocky intertidal zone communities, landbird communities, land cover and use within and surrounding parks, lake water quality and aquatic communities, stream water quality and aquatic communities, vegetation communities, invasive plants, and whitebark pine trees. Learn more about the Klamath Network and browse the published results of our science at https://www.nps.gov/im/klmn/index.htm.

Science Brief: Integrating focal and priority species needs to inform restoration design on the South Fork Stillaguamish Vegetation Project

Overview
A conservation planning framework that applies what we know about birds as indicators of forest structure and composition can inform landscape level planning and stand level restoration. Such planning strives to achieve restoration goals that benefit entire forests and the animals that inhabit them. We selected focal bird species that are representative of old growth forest conditions, and then, within the focal species framework we included the needs of priority wildlife and plant species. By cross-walking a focal and priority species approach, we identify current and desired conditions, recommend prescription components, and implement monitoring to measure treatment effectiveness. Klamath Bird Observatory has partnered with the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians, Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, and Puget Sound Bird Observatory to form a technical advisory team which is working side by side with the Regional Forest Service Avian Conservation Program Manager and USDA Forest Service Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest staff to inform restoration planning. Collectively, this team has integrated focal species needs into planning for the South Fork Stillaguamish Vegetation Project and designed a robust monitoring strategy to measure ecological outcomes.

This vegetation project is occurring in densely stocked Late Successional Reserves (areas set aside to provide old growth habitat). The Forest has identified ~3000 acres where commercial thinning of trees <80 years of age would be both feasible and beneficial to old growth dependent species within a project area of 65,000 acres. Restoration goals are to promote stand development and characteristics of old forests, e.g. broadleaf plants, structural diversity, standing dead trees, and coarse woody debris on the ground. Thus, thinning is designed to promote tree species diversity, structural complexity, and understory cover at the treatment site and contribute to landscape scale goals for Late Successional Reserve habitat diversity over the long-term.

Prioritizing where restoration would have the largest impact
At the onset of the partnership, the technical advisory team looked at areas that the Forest had assessed for potential restoration and identified the upper South Fork Stillaguamish drainage as a conservation priority. The area is designated as a Late Successional Reserve and is currently comprised largely of second growth stands that are adjacent to large contiguous stands of mature and old growth forest. Forest restoration treatments that accelerate the development of older forest characteristics will have added value in this landscape by reducing fragmentation and creating larger blocks of priority forest age structure. Klamath Bird Observatory applied avian climate models and determined that this area is a good candidate for climate smart restoration — that is, the desired conditions align with what climate models project for the area over the next 50-100 years. The upper South Fork Stillaguamish drainage also lends itself well to monitoring — it has good road access, a reasonable number of replicates for treatment and control stands with similar vegetation and age structure, and is a reasonable size to implement both stand and landscape level monitoring.

Integrating the Partners in Flight Conservation Planning Framework
The technical advisory team worked with the forest planning team to inform restoration planning, including stand level treatment prescriptions. Klamath Bird Observatory, working closely with the Regional Forest Service Avian Conservation Program Manager, applied focal species information from applicable Partners in Flight conservation plans. We identified current and desired conditions based on a suite of focal landbird species indicative of specific stand attributes, structure, and condition. Tribal partners identified additional plant and wildlife species that are management and/or cultural priorities in the planning area. Collectively, working within the sideboards of the Forest Service environmental assessment, we established measurable habitat objectives to achieve desired habitat conditions based on the habitat needs of focal species.

Because focal species informed planning, we applied the same approach to develop a short and long term monitoring strategy that will measure treatment effectiveness and inform adaptive management. Klamath Bird Observatory worked with the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians to design site and landscape scale monitoring. By measuring changes in bird communities and vegetation we will be able to assess whether restoration treatments have the desired result, and because a suite of birds serve as indicators of various forest components, we will be able to assess whether the forest is on a trajectory toward older forest conditions over the next 20-50 years. The Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians in partnership with the Puget Sound Bird Observatory are completing bird and vegetation monitoring, in part, through citizen science. Achieving long-term monitoring goals is dependent on partnerships, and this project provides a great example of how various organizations can bring expertise to the table to accomplish goals in a cost effective manner. Data are being contributed to Avian Knowledge Northwest, a regional node of the Avian Knowledge Network and thus, also contributing to this larger avian data collaboration with the potential to inform regional management challenges and conservation planning at even broader scales.

Encounter with a Mountain Bluebird

It is impossible for me to tell someone about my favorite bird without breaking into a smile, sometimes even laughter.  Whenever I miss being a full-time field biologist I think of the Mountain Bluebird, but not just any Mountain Bluebird, specifically the first one I ever saw. The sighting occurred at the end of a very challenging day.

mobl_livaudaisI had gotten my truck stuck in the snow, and had dug it out, three times before finally stopping six miles from the location where I was going to survey for Great Gray Owls.  This was not a problem; I had backcountry skis for exactly this scenario although I hadn’t yet learned how to use them. I buckled into my skis, put on my pack, and strapped my hiking boots onto one side of my pack and a bucket of mice to the other. I looped the strap of my bright yellow boom box (for broadcasting owl calls) over my shoulder and I started skiing.

I fell three times going down the first hill and was grateful to see a steady incline in front of me, figuring uphill would be easier and ignoring the fact that I would have to navigate down that same incline later in the day. By the time I reached my survey site I had only the lid of the mouse bucket, the rest had apparently been swallowed by the snow during one of my tumbles. I quickly realized that it would be impossible to track an owl to its nest tree because I could neither hike in these snow conditions nor ski through the forest without injury. Lacking mice and limited to the road, it was the only day in two seasons of surveys that I was grateful that I didn’t detect an owl. With the survey complete, I turned around to follow my tracks back to my truck.

I was making my way up the final hill, equally exhausted and frustrated, when a few feet in front of me there was a songbird the exact color of Crater Lake on a sunny day, perched on a barren shrub above the shimmering snow. I smiled, grateful to have found a profession where I could challenge myself in amazing places and see beautiful things every day.  Although I did not hear an owl response that day, I later learned I had skied right by the nest tree and expect she had watched the entire spectacle unfold.

Translating an Appreciation of Birds into Action on Private Lands

Acorn Woodpecker

The stories that private landowners tell me often reflect a land ethic with diverse roots.  These stories draw from their experiences with family, or from time spent gardening, farming, or hunting, and they nearly always reveal an appreciation of the natural world.  Many first-time landowners develop a new awareness of their surroundings.  Owning land can facilitate an unintentional, yet intensive, self-study of a person’s place, whether it is their yard in the city or 20 acres in the country.  Quite often this awareness includes the birds that are singing melodies in the early hours of the day, and it directs attention to the seasons, marked by the arrival of brightly colored birds and then marked again by their all too sudden departure.  The combination of understanding and appreciating a piece of land can lead to conservation actions, both small and large.



Klamath Bird Observatory works with private landowners to encourage bird-friendly practices.  Working with our partners, we also guide and assess restoration on private lands.  We use birds as indicators of the health of the environment because they are diverse and individual species represent specific ecological conditions.  Similarly to each individual landowner, each bird species has its own story to tell.  By listening to those stories we can learn about the quality of the habitats that birds inhabit and identify restoration actions that can improve the health of the land.



For private landowners considering restoration of their land, understanding the existing and potential future bird community is a good way to grasp the ecological changes that are possible through restoration.  Recently, KBO has been working with a number of landowners who are implementing oak restoration.  When we visit lands prior to restoration, the bird community we hear tells us about the current habitat characteristics.  For example, in a mixed-conifer forest with an oak component we will detect a mixture of birds that prefer both conifers and oaks, or sometimes only conifer-associated birds, such as Red-breasted Nuthatch, Spotted Towhee, Hermit Warbler, and Pacific-slope Flycatcher.  If a landowner’s goal is to restore the historic oak woodland, we would expect to see a dramatic shift in the bird community after restoration, to bird species such as White-breasted Nuthatch, California Towhee, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Ash-throated Flycatcher.  After learning to identify some of the common birds, landowners begin to see the links between birds and their habitats, and also the possibilities for their land.



This article appears in KBO’s Summer 2013 Newsletter.

Contact

Klamath Bird Observatory
541-201-0866
PO Box 758
Ashland, Oregon 97520

Connect

Donate / Become a member

KBO is a 501(c)3 tax-exempt non-profit organization. Charitable donations to KBO are tax-deductible.
Tax ID# 93-1297400

© Klamath Bird Observatory. All rights reserved. Site developed and hosted by Rogue Web Works.