Flying into the Future

“Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger.” As I sit here at my kitchen table, I am increasingly annoyed at the persistent reminder that I’m hungry coming from outside. No, the Hamburglar isn’t creeping outside my window. Instead, the source of the noise is a Carolina Wren. This common species nests less than 20 feet from where I now sit, and is clearly interested in letting others know that this is where it’s at.

The Carolina Wren is one of the more common bird species out of the more than 330 species recorded from Leon County, Florida where I live. I’m lucky to live in a place with such high bird diversity, but diversity and abundance are two different things. Though diversity in my area is high, the overall abundance of birds around Tallahassee, and in places all over the country, continues to drop.

Limpkin. Photo by Heather Levy

The decline of birds in North America is no secret. Since the 1950s, numerous species have declined at such a rate that recent published research on the topic reached international audiences. Habitat reduction and fragmentation seem to be driving this downturn but, to truly assess landscape-wide declines, one must have a baseline to measure against. And, to actually reverse the decline, far more people need to be engaged with birds and their conservation. Recognizing these needs, Tall Timbers applied for and received a $5,000 Cornell Lab of Ornithology Land Trust Grant to carry out a project that would address both.

Tall Timbers, along with its partners, will help to fill in the gaps of bird distribution within Florida and Georgia, while engaging new audiences with bird conservation through the use of eBird. eBird is both a website and mobile app that allows anyone to log the bird species that they observe in a given area during a set period of time. Local Audubon chapter volunteers will teach private landowners the basics of birding and how to log their bird sightings on eBird, in conjunction with land trust staff conducting annual monitoring visits to conservation easement properties. In addition, these local Audubon chapters will have the ability to visit some of the most incredible private conservation land in their respective regions that are normally off limits, to enjoy and record the birds found in these under-surveyed, but critical, conservation lands.

Tall Timbers is partnering with Conservation Florida and Alachua Conservation Trust to connect with private landowners and their lands. Collectively, the three land trusts protect hundreds of thousands of acres that, in many instances, have been birded infrequently, if ever. In addition, the project will allow all three land trusts to partner with their local Audubon chapters that include Apalachee Audubon, Alachua Audubon, Orange Audubon, and West Volusia Audubon. Audubon volunteers will help support land trust staff in their efforts to connect the dots between landowners and their birds.

Partners will use webinars, the free eBird training course offered through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, easement monitoring visits, and field trips to train both private landowners and/or interested members of the public in the use of eBird, binoculars, and other beginning birding tips. In addition to an opportunity to learn from Audubon volunteers joining land trust staff on property visits, landowners will also have the eBird training course available to them, along with the option for new field guides. Meanwhile, in addition to being able to bird normally-off-limits properties, Audubon volunteers will be gifted with advanced training courses offered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Scrub Jay. Photo by Heather Levy

This project brings measurable benefits to bird conservation in three direct ways. First, it directly records bird occurrences in areas where surveys are a challenge to conduct. Conservation easements, for instance, must have a baseline documentation report, but as any birder knows, one annual visit will not provide a comprehensive list of bird species on a given piece of property. Even if multiple visits do occur, birds come and go, so those less familiar with the appearance or sounds of a particular bird species may never record it. A Henslow’s sparrow may be easy to identify when it sits still, but that quick, brown bird that darts into the underbrush may be impossible to record if someone familiar with the call is not present. For these reasons and more, we believe that equipping private landowners with the means to record observations throughout the year, and connecting local bird experts with these properties will result in a much greater understanding of where declining birds live in Florida and South Georgia.

Another major benefit comes in the form of connecting people to birds. Until people feel personally connected to a problem, they are far less likely to take actions required to solve it. Private landowners will have the tools to foster connections with the bird life on their properties, building a deeper appreciation of their land along the way. These landowners may then help support efforts like eBird and/or local Audubon chapters, if their interest in bird conservation builds.

Finally, this project presents an opportunity to connect people. Land trusts will be able to engage with their landowner partners, while allowing landowners to take pride in the land they’ve worked to conserve, when they show it to either Audubon volunteers, the public, or both. Often, land trusts work in silos in their specific region but this project enables land trusts in a large region to work collaboratively on a single project that supports the respective mission of each land trust.

The connection between people in birds is central to slowing the rapid decline occurring in North American bird populations. While the land trusts involved in this project will remain committed to permanently protecting and managing habitats, this is not enough. More people must feel connected to the problem and must play a role in solving it. This project facilitates that process through the use of an innovative piece of technology and the seemingly simple, but too infrequent, act of building connections between different groups of people. Like a mixed flock landing in the same tree to feed, this project will enable different groups to come together around one resource, and then spread the seeds of conservation to new regions as the project takes flight.

If you are a landowner with an existing conservation easement through Tall Timbers or have an interest in developing one, you can get involved with this project. Please contact Peter Kleinhenz for more information.

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