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Monitoring birds and habitat in early-successional sites in Connecticut

Early-successional bird species are showing alarming declines across the Northeast and particularly in New England. Utilizing limited resources to the best advantage of these declining bird species is a vital task for land managers. In 2006 and 2007, I collected bird abundance and habitat information from 87 points in early-successional habitat in Connecticut. The objective of this effort was to evaluate the relationships between the habitat variables collected at a plot using the point intercept method and the associated bird abundance at the plot. A second objective was to compare two different methods of characterizing early-successional habitat in explaining the variance in bird abundance. A plot-based method based on the BBIRD protocol from Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit and the point intercept method were compared. Finally, I designed and created a database written in Microsoft Access which was used to standardize data entry, aid in the sharing of data and to calculate summary statistics to assist habitat managers in making conservation decisions. The habitat variables were grouped according to composition and structure to analyze bird-habitat relationships. Low broadleaved shrubs, broadleaved shrubs, fern/forbs, conifers, broadleaved trees and invasives, as well as average height for shrubs and trees were used for the analysis. Nine focal early-successional species that are showing general trends of decline were chosen from the list of all birds seen or heard. Bird abundance and detectibility covariates were modeled with the habitat variables using N-mixture models (2004). Up to 24% of the variation of the best models (based upon AICc) was explained by the predictors I investigated. Five of the 9 birds showed a positive correlation to a shrub category variable. Fern/forbs, graminoids and invasives were found to exert less influence on the abundance of these scrub-shrub birds. Results indicated that the date of the survey affected the detectibility of only 5 of the species, and vegetation height only affected one of the species. Overall correlations indicate that these nine shrubland dependent species utilize a structurally complex habitat including broadleaved shrubs less 2 meters in height and than 2-5 meters in height and herbaceous forbs and graminoids. Invasive plants were found to be positively correlated to 2 of the 9 species possibly warranting additional work on the affects of these species on early-successional birds. Thirty-one of the total 87 point count points were selected for the comparison between the BBIRD and point intercept method. I choose six focal early-successional species for the analysis: indigo bunting, blue-winged warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, yellow warbler, prairie warbler and the common yellowthroat. The point intercept and BBIRD methods explained on average the same amount of variability in the data, and models from each data set included nearly the same number of variables, on average. Thus, we conclude these two vegetation sampling methodologies were essentially equivalent in summarizing important characteristics of scrub-shrub bird habitats. In the field, the BBIRD method took on average almost twice as long to complete as the point intercept method. Because in this study the two methods were similar in the amount of the bird abundance variance they explained and because the BBIRD method takes substantially longer to complete, I recommend that the point intercept method be considered an acceptable method for managers to use to characterize the relationships between early-successional bird species and their habitat. An important step in the successful conservation of declining early-successional bird species is the creation of database management systems and the coordination and cooperation amongst agencies that can stem from the use of these databases. The database I created ensures standardized data entry for data collected from multiple sites over many years. The database takes this data and can be queried for whatever particular information a manager needs. Percent cover of vegetation and invasives, average height of vegetation, and bird abundance are summarized and graphically displayed by the database. Ease of operation, ability to query and ability to share the information makes this database an important tool in the successful conservation of declining species