Less Twittering in the Trees

Story by Kathleen McFadden

The cerulean warbler’s estimated 70 percent population decline over the past 40 years was alarming enough for conservationists to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the bird as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The agency announced its decision not to list the bird, but encouraged the submission of additional data on the status of and threats to the species.

Spring comes slowly to the mountains. Long after the early-season flowers have come and gone in the lowlands, winter-weary mountain dwellers wait patiently for their first sight of a royal purple crocus, the golden glory of the backyard forsythia and the return of our cherished birds.

But the birds of Appalachia are not as plentiful as they once were, with population declines among some species causing concern among conservationists and sparking the development of unprecedented partnerships to try to mitigate some of the impacts leading to these population decreases.

Impact of Forest Fragmentation
Birds can be notoriously picky about their surroundings. One such bird is the cerulean warbler, a small, azure bird that nests high in the canopy of old-growth-type forests. Ceruleans like sweeping tracts of mature forest with tall, large-diameter trees and a structurally diverse canopy with multiple vegetation layers.

The bird breeds in eastern North America and winters in the Andes Mountains in South America. Both its summer and winter locations overlap with major industries that impact the bird’s habitat, according to Dr. Brian Smith, American Bird Conservancy’s Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture (AMJV) coordinator.

In North America, the major industry is coal mining, although agriculture and urbanization have also resulted in significant forest fragmentation, Smith explained. Eighty percent of cerulean warblers breed in the AMJV area, with the highest density in the coalfields, Smith said. Ceruleans don’t like—and avoid—the abrupt edges between forest and open grassland that are common byproducts of abandoned coal-mining operations.

In South America, agriculture has encroached on the birds’ winter habitat. According to the Cerulean Warbler Technical Group, an estimated 60 percent of the winter habitat for cerulean warblers might already have been lost to agricultural activities.

Because of their size, their penchant for staying off the beaten path and their practice of nesting up high, cerulean warblers are difficult to monitor, but based on North American Breeding Bird Survey data, the species has steadily declined approximately three percent annually over the past 40 years.

While the cerulean warbler is the best focal species to illustrate population reductions, Smith said, an entire suite of mature forest habitat birds is showing long-term declines. In addition to the cerulean warbler, this suite includes the Kentucky warbler, worm-eating warbler, wood thrush and Louisiana waterthrush.

But mature forest habitat birds aren’t the only ones on a watch list. A whopping 107 birds are identified as priority birds of conservation concern in the Appalachian Mountains Bird Conservation Region, with well-known species such as the purple martin, red-headed woodpecker, whip-poor-will and chimney swift making the list, along with many others.

Focus on Habitat Restoration

Although it is one of the most common species in eastern forests, the wood thrush has shown steady, long-term declines with an estimated 43 percent population reduction since 1966.

The Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture that Smith coordinates is a 12-state regional partnership with federal and state agencies, private nonprofits and industry focused on wild native bird conservation.
One recent conservation project allied the AMJV with the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Wild Turkey Foundation, and other partners to reclaim several acres of former mineland in Ohio by planting 15,000 seedlings in Spring 2008.

While it will be decades before the Ohio trees are mature enough to attract ceruleans for nesting, Smith said, the trees’ gradual growth will progressively reduce the hard edge between forest and grassland, creating a buffer that will benefit the birds. In the meantime, other species that like early successional forest conditions can thrive.

In addition, two federal developments in March 2009 hold promise for increased attention to bird habitat—one from EPA, the other from the Department of the Interior.

With regard to two proposed surface coal mining operations, the EPA notified the Army Corps of Engineers of its “significant concern” about and the need to address “the cumulative impacts on the watershed, forest and habitat destruction and fragmentation within a globally significant and biologically diverse forest system, and the impairment of downstream water quality.” The EPA signaled its intent to review other coal mining permit applications as well.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar released the first-ever The State of the Birds report that “reveals troubling declines of bird populations during the past 40 years—a warning signal of the failing health of our ecosystems.”

Smith said the American Bird Conservancy is encouraged that the current administration is taking a step back to conduct a scientific review of the overall ecological impact of coal operations, and he expects The State of the Birds Report to have a significant and positive effect on conservation efforts.

“We have a steep hill ahead of us,” Smith said, “but the track record has shown that if we synthesize our approach and methods, we can be successful.”

Priority Birds of Conservation Concern in the Appalachian Region

The following list identifies priority birds of conservation concern in the Appalachian Mountains Bird Conservation Region, categorized into highest, high and moderate priority tiers to help guide decisions on management, funding and conservation actions. Twenty additional species on the AMJV priority species list have not yet been assigned to a tier.

Appalachian bird watchers will find many of their favorite species on this list.

    Highest Priority

    American black duck
    American woodcock
    Bewick’s wren
    Blue-winged warbler
    Canada goose – Atlantic
    Cerulean warbler
    Golden-winged warbler
    Henslow’s sparrow
    Kentucky warbler
    Prairie warbler
    Wood thrush
    Worm-eating warbler
    High Priority
    Acadian flycatcher
    Bicknell’s thrush
    Black-billed cuckoo
    Brown-headed nuthatch
    Canada warbler
    Chimney swift
    Field sparrow
    Golden eagle
    Hooded warbler
    Louisiana waterthrush
    Northern goshawk
    Red crossbill
    Swainson’s warbler
    Upland sandpiper
    Whooping crane
    Yellow-bellied flycatcher
    Yellow-bellied sapsucker

    Moderate Priority

    Alder flycatcher
    American bittern
    Bachman’s sparrow
    Bald eagle
    Bay-breasted warbler
    Black-and-white warbler
    Blackburnian warbler
    Black-capped chickadee
    Blackpoll warbler
    Broad-winged hawk
    Brown thrasher
    Buff-breasted sandpiper
    Eastern meadowlark
    Eastern towhee
    Eastern wood-pewee
    Grasshopper sparrow
    Hooded merganser
    Indigo bunting
    King rail
    Lark sparrow
    Least sandpiper
    Lesser yellowlegs
    Loggerhead shrike
    Long-eared owl
    Marsh wren
    Northern bobwhite
    Northern flicker
    Northern harrier
    Northern parula
    Northern saw-whet owl
    Olive-sided flycatcher
    Peregrine falcon
    Prothonotary warbler
    Purple martin
    Red-cockaded woodpecker
    Red-headed woodpecker
    Ruffed grouse
    Sandhill crane
    Scarlet tanager
    Sedge wren
    Semipalmated plover
    Sharp-shinned hawk
    Short-eared owl
    Solitary sandpiper
    Spotted sandpiper
    Summer tanager
    Virginia rail
    Western sandpiper
    White-throated sparrow
    Wild turkey
    Willow flycatcher
    Wood duck
    Yellow-breasted chat
    Yellow-throated vireo
    Yellow-throated warbler

    Unassigned Species

    American coot
    Black tern
    Black-crowned night-heron
    Blue-winged teal
    Common goldeneye
    Common moorhen
    Common tern
    Greater yellowlegs
    Least bittern
    Lesser scaup
    Ring-necked duck
    Semipalmated sandpiper
    Stilt sandpiper
    Yellow rail

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