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This Year The WILLISTOWN CONSERVATION TRUST Received A GENEROUS NATIONAL AUDUBON AND TOYOTA “TOGETHER GREEN INNOVATION GRANT” TO RESTORE AND PROMOTE SHRUB HABITAT FOR BIRDS
One of only 40 nationwide Together Green 2012 grant recipients, the Willistown Conservation Trust, in partnership with Audubon PA and Valley Forge Audubon, received $20,500 from National Audubon and Toyota’s Together Green Innovation Grant program! We are proud and thankful to have received this prestigious award and will use it to help preserve and raise awareness of Early Successional Scrub/Shrub Habitat (ESSH) for the birds.
ESSH is that low shrub habitat that we have all seen but may not have been able to name. It includes mostly shrubs , a few small trees, and some wildflowers and grasses. This is the type of habitat that occurs or succeeds after a grassy area has been unmowed for several years. The beauty of these shrub areas may be difficult to see until you realize the immense value this threatened habitat holds for young birds and other wildlife.
Here are some examples of Early Successional Shrub Habitats:
In order to promote this under appreciated and often misunderstood habitat, we are in the process of creating one of Pennsylvania’s first multi-site models for ESSH! Our three demonstration sites in the WCT program area will include an area in Ridley Creek State Park, our own Ashbridge Preserve and Rushton Woods Preserve; these sites will show landowners the ecological value of ESSH and the applicability to managing and preserving ESSH on their own properties. The model sites with varying degrees of management will show landowners that promoting ESSH on their land can be as simple as just not clearing a shrubby area or can involve planting native shrubs and managing tree growth. Work Day activities at the demonstration sites will include some removal of invasive plants, the planting of native shrubs (selected to provide the structure and food sources needed by migrant and nesting birds), and fencing plots for deer protection.
During this project, we will not be placing major emphasis on the removal of vines and invasive plants because it is a controversial subject. New findings suggest that heavily invaded areas are in fact quite stable and capable of carrying out the same ecosystem services as pristine environments; these human influenced natural areas can be allowed to provide good habitat for birds and wildlife rather than be “torn out in an expensive and fruitless attempt to return native vegetation dominance” in an “unceasing tide of change,” as suggested in “The New Normal”, an interesting article in Conservation magazine.
In addition to work days for our ESSH project, there will be a series of fun and educational workshops offered in the spring for landowners and anyone interested, which will feature interactive tours of these ESSH demonstration sites, mini hikes, bird banding and bird surveying (which will be crucial to the monitoring of these demonstration sites). Ultimately, what we really want is to shift people’s suburban mentality to a mindset that allows them to see the natural and ecological beauty of Early Successional Scrub Habitat. We want landowners to have a strong enough connection to, understanding of, and sense of responsibility to nature that they think twice (particularly about birds) before clearing shrubby areas on their property or that if they do clear they go about it in a sensitive way (in stages) and are prepared to replant with natives.
With lawns totaling 1.2 million acres in the U.S. and 21 million acres of natural land being lost to residential development each decade (according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), it’s time for all of us who value wildlife and biodiversity to begin viewing our properties as habitats. If everyone shared just a corner of their perfectly manicured (and biologically barren) lawn to natural habitat, whether it be an unmowed field, wildflower meadow or shrub area, think of all the extra room there would be for wildlife that we and our posterity could enjoy!
This “backyard as habitat” movement has already begun to take root as evidenced by bestsellers like “Bringing Nature Home” by Doug Tallamy and “Noah’s Garden” by Sara Stein. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology even has a cool new citizen science project, called YardMap, that encourages homeowners to map their yards in a network of people dedicated to providing habitat for birds in their yards. Each property can make a difference, and the more properties that participate the easier it becomes for birds to move between these patches of habitat.
Early Successional Scrub Habitat is a great place to start in this “backyard as habitat” movement because ESSH is valuable to birds even in small, patchy distributions like yards. Unlike grassland dependent species, like Eastern Meadowlarks, which require acres upon acres of contiguous grassland habitat, most shrub-associated birds, like Common Yellowthroats and Gray Catbirds, are typically not sensitive to patch size. Therefore, even efforts on individual properties can affect local breeding populations.
In addition to nesting habitat, ESSH offers crucial cover and food sources for birds throughout the year, including baby birds trying to survive their first and most vulnerable year of life. It’s a fact that over 50% of baby birds do not make it through their first year of life. In a recent telemetry study by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, scientists found that even birds like Wood Thrush and Ovenbird that have long been considered emblematic of undisturbed mature forests will head straight for brushy tangles that ESSH offers after leaving their nests. These thickets offer more protection than open woods from predators like hawks, snakes and chipmunks.
We see this phenomenon at Rushton where we band in the shrubby hedgerow during spring and fall migration. Most of the birds we capture in the shrubs in early fall are hatching year birds (baby birds born that summer) of all different species including the woodland nesting birds. Many of these young woodland birds are even recaptured in the hedgerows in fall after we banded them as “fresh-out-of-the-nest” babies this summer in the woods, which proves this species-wide affinity in hatching year birds for ESSH. These recaptured birds of two habitats have included Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Downy Woodpecker, Common Yellowthroat, Veery, and even a Kentucky Warbler. Hence, banding also reveals the nuanced story that telemetry has begun to reveal-that just because a bird breeds in one specific habitat does not mean that it doesn’t need other habitats for the other parts of its life.
In the spring and fall, many exhausted migrants of all ages also seek and value that “other habitat”, ESSH, for food and shelter. Through banding we have discovered that many young and some adult birds of all species, no matter what their breeding habitat preference, see Rushton’s shrubby habitat from above and decide to touch down for refueling . Birds of all species seem to have a search image, whether learned or genetic, for these types of shrubby areas during migration. They know the shrubs are teeming with berries and insects and that they will find rest for their weary wings in the thick protective undergrowth.
Migrant Saw whet Owls also love these shrubby areas for the healthy population of mice and voles they often support and for the dense thickets the shrubs offer for secretive roosting during the day.
Here are some migrant birds that enjoyed their stay at Rushon’s Early Successional Habitat this fall, whether they dined on insects or berries or rodents!
Bird populations as a whole are declining, and migration is so fraught with peril that bird mortality rates are 15 times higher during migration. During migration and throughout their lives, birds are faced with habitat loss and other human threats like pesticides, toxins, harmful fishing practices, free-roaming cats, and communication towers and wind farms with which they often collide. Comparisons of spring radar records from 1960s to those from the 1980s show a sobering 50% decline of migratory activity on favorable weather days.
Therefore, we are excited to do what we can for the birds by promoting Early Successional Scrub Habitat, which in itself is threatened in Pennsylvania. Historically, ESSH was much more prevalent in forest gaps in PA that were routinely created by fire, storms, Native Americans, and beavers. Now fire is suppressed and beavers have been wiped out of most areas from trapping. In addition, many people are clearing these shrubby areas with the misconception that they are junky “unnatural areas.” Other landowners would rather let the shrub habitat succeed into forest, which is sometimes perceived as more valuable, ecologically and economically.
With the Together Green Innovation Grant, the Trust hopes to encourage landowners to preserve and even help create ESSH for the benefit of our natural heritage and the birds that so desperately need our help. It’s time to embrace those wild, unkempt areas on our properties and see the beauty in the great biodiversity such places can hold. These are places full of life on our properties that, instead of getting frustrated with, we should be getting excited about and treasuring for the hope and wonder it holds for us and for our children.
Another major purpose of this grant project is to connect people to nature who have not previously been a part of the conservation movement. On Election Day this fall, we held our first Together Green work day at Rushton Woods Preserve and Farm during which about 20 students, ranging in age from 3rd to 5th grade, worked alongside a handful of adults to plant 100 native shrubs in our ESSH demonstration area. These urban students were from the Melton Arts and Education Community Center of West Chester where I first taught them about birds and the importance of habitat a couple of weeks ago during an after school session. The workday was an excellent opportunity for the children to show us that they not only listened but cared deeply about the topic.
All of the tensions and hot air surrounding the imminent election dissipated as the adults were blown away by the students’ single-mindedness and earnest compassion for the environment. The students first visited the songbird banding station where they were delighted to see familiar birds up close like the Blue Jay and Cardinal. Some students, not normally known for having a gentle touch, softly held the birds before releasing them and breathed, “I could feel its heart beating!” Others who reported being scared of birds upon arrival got over their fears as their peers sensitively encouraged them to touch a bird.
After they got their fill of birds, the Melton students raced over to the demonstration area, learned how to plant and cage shrubs and did not hesitate to get their hands dirty. After all, “it’s for the birds to eat!” , they exclaimed. Pretty soon, the students were excitedly working in teams of three and each trying to help each other plant as many shrubs as they possibly could. It was so inspiring to watch these urban kids take to nature and the soil so fast and make the real connection between the native shrubs and the birds.
To learn more about preserving ESSH and get involved with the Trust’s efforts, stay tuned for future workshop days to be offered in the spring. If you’d like to be notified of volunteer opportunities and workshops related to this program, if you have any questions, or if you’d like to get the list of native shrubs we are planting for birds and other wildlife for use in your own landscaping, just send me an email (“Blake Goll” <email@example.com>). Another great link for discovering which plants are important for which specific birds is the Plant-Bird Database pabirdplants.org.
Click here for more information about this Together Green Grant.
Click here to read an article by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about the importance of shrub habitat to baby birds.
Guess ‘Hooo’ is loving our shrub habitat right now? Owls! Rushton is an owl magnet this year; we are up to a record 255 new Saw-whet Owls banded this season! Although we are closed to the public for the season (we’ve had close to 1,000 visitors), we are still netting about 10 Saw-whet Owls per night, mostly young birds with a sprinkling of older adults and foreign recoveries. We even netted a magnificent Long-eared Owl for our Bird Conservation Committee on the 13th, which was perhaps the most beautiful bird I’ve ever laid eyes on. He was like a work of art, so regal and dignified- looking , even with his slightly cross-eyed stare.
This owl season has been stupendous, but we banders are getting very tired….
…We are ready for the owls to stop coming, so we can catch up on sleep for the winter in our cozy warm beds.
We are thankful for our birds and thankful to Toyota and Audubon for the Together Green grant that will enable us to take action to truly show the birds our appreciation of the vibrance and character they bring to our lives, our properties and our countryside.
What will you do to give thanks for the birds this holiday season ?