Protecting the Next Generation of Birds

The 30-Year Bird Project studies the impact of forestry and climate change on Maine’s breeding birds.

It is 5:30 a.m. on a dewy Tuesday morning, too early for most people to be swatting away mosquitoes and tramping through dense briars. Yet most people are not Jude Dickerson, one of the nine young ecologists working this year’s field season of the 30-Year Bird Project. Dickerson, a graduate of the University of Vermont who favors wolf-themed T-shirts, is currently listening for wind rather than melodious warblers. The crew wakes up at 3:30 a.m. each day to gather data by point counting: listening intently, pencils poised over data sheets, they scribble furiously to keep track of all the birds they hear. But at any moment the wind can whistle through the trees, drowning out birdsong.

The project conducted its first season in 1992, aiming to quantify how breeding birds in Maine’s iconic commercial forests are impacted by logging. It was led by John Hagan, John Gunn, and Peter McKinley, now accomplished professionals with Our Climate Common, the Nature Conservancy, and the Wilderness Society, respectively; the three researchers never imagined they would reconvene to replicate their pioneering study 30 years later. But recent news about breeding-bird population loss motivated them to revitalize their work. In 2019 a staggering report published in the journal Science revealed that three billion North American birds have been lost since 1970. Maine’s commercial forest, identified by the National Audubon Society as the largest Important Bird Area of Global Significance in the contiguous U.S., is more significant than ever after that bombshell article. This fertile breeding ground must continue to support a wide range of species.

And that’s where the new guard comes in. Jonah Levy (they/she), a Tufts University PhD student, and Kelsi Anderson (she/her), a University of New Hampshire master’s student, were hired as new field crew in 2021. The research continued into this year’s field season, with seven more undergraduate and graduate students, Dickerson among them, joining the project under Levy and Anderson’s leadership.

Repeating the original study is valuable because it will help to protect breeding grounds, but also because much has shifted in the North Woods in the past 30 years. Due to the creation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, soaring global temperatures, and public outcry against clear-cutting, the commercial forest has been in flux. The goal of the current study is to see how changes in both forestry practices and the climate have influenced the diversity and abundance of the birds nesting up north, such as the northern goshawk and the Blackburnian warbler.

The project’s results carry the potential to influence timber company practices, therefore protecting more birds. What is good for the environment is often seen as diametrically opposed to what is good for the economy, but in this case corporations, such as Weyerhaeuser and LandVest, that fell trees for paper and lumber—products that are among Maine’s top exports—could play a role in slowing down the precipitous decline of bird populations. Possible actions could include creating and preserving stands of forest that are in the younger and older age classes. Because much of the commercial forest is mid-age forest, around 30 to 40 years old, this practice would ensure that birds have access to the forest type they prefer to breed within. Other practices, such as thinning fir and spruce stands at a young age, may create attractive clearings for a variety of species.

As Levy “lays in” another point with neon pink flagging tape, Dickerson waits on the edge of a gravel Weyerhaeuser road. A “point” is a circle, 50 meters in diameter, that must be at least 100 meters from any logging road. Later, Levy will return to this point and conduct a point count over ten minutes. Some people find it hard to keep still during point counts, itching and fidgeting amid droves of black flies and mosquitoes, but not Levy. They have a supernatural ability to wear only a T-shirt, shorts, and a bandanna, allowing others to mooch their extra gear.

Most of the birds are counted by ear, so it is a pleasant surprise when Dickerson sees one: a golden yellow, boldly patterned evening grosbeak stands out magnificently against the spruce trees. The adult male grosbeak is territorial and is soon attacking his reflection in the truck’s mirror. The sighting will later be recounted to the rest of the crew over a vegan chili dinner on the porch of the duplex in Greenville where the field technicians stay. Everyone will swap stories about what birds they found that day within the 302 surveying points in a 10-million-acre commercial forest. Birding hotspots in southern Maine, like Scarborough Marsh and Biddeford Pool, tend to get most of the attention, yet here, hours north of Portland, the next generation of birds is under the careful watch of the next generation of ecologists and ornithologists.

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