Saturday, February 20, 2016

Silent Spring Again

I conducted my first breeding bird survey in the Ozarks in spring, 2004. I remember being a bit disappointed while working in this incredibly rich ecosystem that there weren't a lot of prairie warbler nests, that the indigo bunting nest success was down rather significantly from a survey conducted in 1998, and that the generalist species were on the increase by density, not numbers, while the specialists-- the prairie warblers, field sparrows, blue-gray gnatcatchers and others-- were present but not in such an abundance as recorded in a 1995-1998 survey of the same area. Maybe I caught a bad year, maybe it was too dry that spring, maybe it was all the development occurring at the border of the study site. I was still pretty excited to see prairie warblers and field sparrows and yellow-breasted chats in woodlands, yes, birds not often associated with woodland systems but definitely present in these burned woodlands that were full of long-lived perennial forbs and a regenerating grassland-shrubland component, an aspect that researchers call "structure," not a measure of biodiversity but a component of worth when considering bird use of natural areas.

Nevertheless, numbers of individuals and successful nests were down in 2004 and again lower when I revisited the same sites in 2010. There wasn't an exponential drop in the population of these target species, but the numbers of individual occurrences didn't even resemble the population numbers from the mid-1990s. I've sent my data through the same analysis programs and have had a few presentations on the importance of regularly occurring prescribed fire and largescale intact native ecosystems to bird populations, so forth, but the numbers of birds and successful nests I've encountered are considerably lower than the exact same surveys conducted in the 1990s. But my work is just anecdotal, nothing published, only in posters and presentations. As such, I've just sort of written off the anomalous low numbers to increased fragmentation, localized drought, a "bad year" for birds or even my own human error in sampling. Maybe it's due to other factors including increased urbanization, conversion of wintering grounds to cattle grazing, increased agriculture, population explosion, lack of predators and natural processes, or the phenology of bloom times of native flora which I've written about multiple times in the past 6 years. But this is all "anecdotal and conjecture." I know from experience, data collection and from examining historic data and replicating the sampling procedure that the bird populations are declining in this high quality tract of woodlands in the western Ozarks.

In recent years I have cancelled my subscriptions to certain organizations whose boards or other leadership have tried to whitewash the absolutely devastating impacts of climate change, of recent environmental disasters like the 2010 oil spill, of the elephant in the room--population explosion, of urbanization and industrial takeover of the world's last remaining wild places including the destruction of native prairie by the cattle industry. Out of the shakeout, I remain a loyal member of my local Audubon chapter, a small group of folks who take our chapter's mission very seriously--to preserve and protect the earth's biological diversity.

I have enjoyed the opportunity to line up speakers for our monthly meetings. The February speaker, in particular, I was excited to hear. I gave him a topic: Climate Change and Bird Populations in Missouri. While I was expecting to hear about range changes, how painted buntings and black vultures are moving northward, red-shouldered hawks are increasing during winter months, and other interesting facts, I was thrilled to listen to a presentation about the direct impacts of climate change. The speaker, an Emeritus professor at the University of Missouri with literally hundreds of publications about bird populations under his belt, produced a frightful doomsday scenario regarding his 40 years of migratory bird research and the impacts of climate change. I don't like whitewashing, and I don't like the "finding the positive" in environmental disasters and ecological collapse which I've seen in publications and throughout the mainstream media, so I sat riveted by this revered professor. Unlike my own "anecdotal evidence" of changes in bird populations which doesn't hold water in the research world, he came to the meeting with direct evidence and data showing the impacts of climate change on migratory songbirds, the birds that winter in South and Central America and spend their breeding seasons in Missouri. Black and white warblers, prairie warblers, wood thrush, and the rest of the migrants, this professor has collected data for forty years using mistnets and banding procedures in the exact locations in Puerto Rico to track population dynamics. The news is not good. Migratory songbird populations are tanking, and rather precipitously.

How do you pin down climate change as a cause? With so many folks arguing that 'climate' is not 'weather,' the evidence is clear that the climate is changing, the constants are changing, weather events are becoming more severe, the El Nino is more severe, the droughts are more severe and all of these factors together are impacting bird populations. Several years ago I wrote a post about how the natural events celebrated in an agency's beautifully produced calendar are now occurring two weeks earlier: Spring peepers start calling in January, morels are out earlier, greenup of sedges is occurring earlier. While some citizens welcome the earlier spring and warmer weather, the impacts to prescribed fire programs are significant; we're not seeing ideal burn weather in mid-February. It's too green, too windy, too dry, the casualties on wildlife and flora would be too great even in mid-February, a season which was once completely dormant. The impacts of warming climate on native flora phenology are huge. Earlier bloom cycles, which are well documented, mean that the invertebrate life loyal to certain plants may miss the critical feeding times. By the time migratory songbirds arrive in Missouri and set up breeding territories, if those territories are even available with the threat of urbanization and exotic species, the caterpillars necessary for brood rearing may have already morphed into moths and butterflies. Without a food source directly linked to the bloom cycles of native flora, fledgling success tanks.

But phenology isn't the only problem. With the slight increase in temperature, predators become active earlier now. Researchers using geolocators have discovered their tracking devices in the stomachs of snakes earlier than in years past. With warmer days occurring earlier, snakes are more active and predatory on bird nests. Add to the mix the drought, the lack of warm spring rains that once gave rise to a suite of plants and animals thriving across a landscape. The flashy, ten inch rain events do nothing for wildlife. All of that rain ends up in runoff. Weather patterns have changed and not in the course of hundreds of years. Weather patterns have changed even in the short time that I've lived in Missouri. That's shocking.

Sadly, the revered professor who spoke to my Audubon chapter ended his presentation with a list of things that we can do to help the situation. Among them, educate the public that climate change is actually occurring and not a fictional liberal agenda item. Second on his list, knowing that climate change reform won't happen when millions of tons of carbon are being spewed from the tailpipes of automobiles daily and that won't change unless there is legislation that even applies to China and India whose populations grow exponentially on a daily basis, is that he should retire and enjoy retirement. I've seen the march of ecological doom barreling my way, and have tried to take the dictum of "float the rivers while they're still flowing and not full of cattle, and drink wine." Sadly, in 20 years, if I'm still around I'll be drinking Norton from a straw through my oxygen mask. Ecological doom through climate change is not science fiction. It's happening now.


Patricia A. Laster said...

Lots of negatives in your post,huh?. Why the pseudo-scientists and politicians "pshawing" obvious climate change don't see beyond their noses is (ahem)beyond me. In central AR, I've enjoyed cardinals, sparrows, bluebirds, robins, chickadees, mockingbirds and bluejays. Sadly, the doves are missing and I don't see brown thrashers like I used to. One day last (warm) week, a woodpecker joined the other species at the birdbath. I saw it twice more that same day but not since. Of course, the whippoorwills that lived in the woods next to us were routed from their habitat by construction. I haven't heard one in decades, much to my sorrow. PL

Allison Vaughn said...

I catch a lot of flak for not being "positive," and I'm the one who was really upset when my kid sister announced she was pregnant with my nephew five years ago--what kind of world will he grow up in? I was chided then for being the doomsday sayer, but I'm not wrong. I feel sorry for my nephew. We're totally screwed ecologically. When did you last hear gray treefrogs? They used to chorus everywhere but with the 2012 drought their populations tanked in Missouri. I haven't heard them in several years in the same abundance. Same with whip-por-wills. Ach. Ecological doom in my lifetime. I'm sorry my little nephew is going to have to deal with it.

Cathy Hansen said...

We love your "rants' and all the conservation work you do. Human overpopulation is the cause of climate change that no one wants to discuss today. When we moved to the far south edge of Kansas City 20 years ago, we could listen to whippoorwills every night. We lost them ten years ago and blamed it on new construction and more feral cats, perhaps, but we have also lost them at our small farm in central Mo. {Thompson}. In Kansas City we are trying to keep honeysuckle and callery pear from overtaking last little bits of bluebird and monarch habitat. We still have a few bluebird families that stay all year, with thrush and thrasher in summer. At farm we are keeping honeysuckle at bay by scouting for big ones to cut in winter and doing controlled burns to get the little ones. In 10 years our woodland will be a small island in a sea of honeysuckle. Thanks to tiling on big agricultural fields, and the big rain events, we can no longer easily cross the temporary streams that have cut 15 foot deep channels. Prairie grass watercourses that feed into the streams have also become impassable ditches. Positive note: quail and dicksissel doing OK at farm. Thanks again for your work and information we get from blog.

Allison Vaughn said...

Thanks, I hope I don't sound like my cranky grandma complaining about kids in her yard....but it's true! Climate change is a real thing and it's not just scientists who notice it. It's normal citizens, too, who notice declines in wildlife diversity, in February fakeout weather that lasts for weeks at a time. It would be one thing if climate change was the only destructive factor, but managing increasing abundance of exotic species, of the lack of predators, of urbanization that impacts management and wildlife corridors, of more damned people who are crammed into small natural areas that are now being loved to death. It's all very sad. I guess I just consider my early 40s as a time of writing testimony. Keep up the work on the honeysuckle, make sure you stump treat when you cut and the fire will definitely keep it from moving in, but you have to keep up with the fires. I'm seeing a situation now in an incredibly area that has been managed for 36 years with great management, honeysuckle all around the preserve, but the manager retired for horrible politics and the current managers are not keeping up with the same vigilance. It all comes down to the passion of the people maintaining the land. We've certainly passed the point of "preserving" land, now every damned acre has to be actively managed to keep exotics and deer out. Good to hear about the quail and dicksissels--the later have been really hit on the nose in their wintering grounds by folks poisoning them by the thousands for crop "damage" eating the waste corn and rice. Thanks for reading. And keep up the great work on your land.