Audubon Executive Director Larry Taft (right) and Audubon Senior Director of Conservation Scott Ruhren monitoring the property at Fisherville Brook Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Glenn Osmundson
Published March 5, 2021
Where Science Begins
Keeping an Eye on Nature
By Todd McLeish
Several times each week from May through August, Cindy Dibble visits three sites in Narragansett and South Kingstown where Osprey are known to nest, and during each visit she watches the birds and makes notes about what she sees. She documents when the birds arrive on migration, when they mate, when they begin incubating their eggs, and when the fledglings make their first flight, among other milestones. All of her observations are then uploaded to Audubon’s Osprey Monitoring Program website.
“I’m just so fascinated by this majestic bird,” said Dibble, a retired special education teacher who has been an Osprey monitor for three years. “It’s time-consuming, but it’s also fun. And when you’re monitoring the same nest for several years, you get attached to the birds and you start to worry about them.”
Dibble is one of nearly 100 volunteers who monitored about 200 nest sites last year for a program that was started by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management in 1977 and has been managed by Audubon since 2010. All of the data collected by the volunteers is compiled into an annual report that is shared with researchers to better understand the fluctuating populations of this once-rare bird.
The Osprey Monitoring Program is one of many science-based research and monitoring efforts undertaken by Audubon staff and volunteers each year that are designed to gather information about wildlife and their habitats.
According to Executive Director Larry Taft, Audubon’s three mission areas all rely on sound science – environmental education programs that engage thousands of students each year; wildlife monitoring and conservation best practices that Audubon uses to enhance its wildlife refuge properties; and science-based reports and data, like that collected by the Osprey monitors, used to formulate policy positions and advocate for those positions at the State House.
“There are a lot of opinions out there,” said Taft, “but Audubon has always based decisions and actions on the facts as we know them. That goes way back to our early observations of declining bird populations, pollution, and chemical pesticide use like DDT. For Audubon to remain credible, we have to adhere to the science.”
Nearly 100 volunteers monitored approximately 200 Osprey nest sites last year for Audubon. Image: Jason Major.
Despite Audubon’s long-term commitment to science, its positions and practices are sometimes challenged by those with different motives, like those who continue to deny that the climate is changing and those changes are largely caused by human activities.
“We want to continue to be the organization that people turn to and trust, with staff who have experience and know what they’re talking about,” Taft said. “And we’re trying to be more and more proactive on how we conduct our monitoring and the active roll we play in conservation, not just for feel-good reasons, but to have a real and lasting impact in protecting birds and wildlife.”
When developing policy positions, for instance, Audubon staff members refer to research papers, reports and other documents and then verify their accuracy before drawing conclusions.
“As we move forward with pressing for the banning of neonicotinoids because of their effects on pollinators, we have to be careful of what we claim,” said Taft. “We need to make sure that science is backing us up. Too many times, people accept as truth something that is not well-researched and not well-documented. Science is a way of organizing information that’s empirical.”
Similarly, Audubon’s education mission focuses on nature walks and other field trips and activities to enlighten children and families about natural history, and all of Audubon’s educators are well-versed in the environmental sciences. Not only are the lessons science-based, but they also help children understand how to conduct science themselves.
Audubon Council of Advisors member Steve Reinert leads a bird banding program with providence students in Audubon's Urban Naturalist program.
“A transect in the woods designed to count how many salamanders there are can help students document natural science facts and train them how to read data and analyze issues for themselves,” Taft said. “It’s a way to discover the importance of monitoring nature. And we hope that activities like these, led by our education staff, will inspire some budding scientists.”
Audubon’s commitment to science is most evident in its environmental monitoring and stewardship activities. Its wildlife refuges have actively supported natural science research for decades. Through numerous legacy projects, like the Kingston Wildlife Research Station (which got its start in 1956) and long-term bird and rare plant monitoring at sites around the state, Audubon has collected data and collaborated with a wide variety of partners to evaluate population declines, make management recommendations, and identify trends that could lead to environmental protection.
Habitat restoration is a perfect example. Decisions to restore habitat are based on a scientific understanding of habitat quality and the habitat needs of targeted species. Before and after restoration, bird and plant monitoring is typically conducted to determine whether the restored habitat attracts and supports the desired wildlife.
At Audubon’s largest refuge, the 1,100-acre Marion Eppley Wildlife Refuge in South Kingstown and Exeter, some of the habitat had become overgrown and the forests had matured so much that it was no longer attractive to early successional species like Blue-winged Warblers, American Woodcock, New England cottontails and several reptiles and amphibians. So a grant was acquired to fund restoration of 30 acres of habitat.
Audubon Souncil of Advisors member Dave Gumbley monitors a bluebird box.
According to Scott Ruhren, Audubon’s senior director of conservation, some trees and shrubs were cut to open up the canopy and allow a new generation of native trees and shrubs to grow. “Rabbit researchers in the Northeast know what kind of habitat and plant types are needed to attract New England cottontails, and observational studies have identified the preferred habitat of certain birds,” he said. “We know that when forests close in, you lose some bird species.
“We also left the cut material on the ground to provide cover for animals. That messiness is exactly what the animals need,” Ruhren added. “Based on research, we know a messy forest reduces herbivory by deer because they have a hard time getting over the debris. Which means that vulnerable plants might have a better chance to flourish in the face of the typically heavy influence of deer in the Northeast.”
Since the restoration began seven years ago, Audubon’s bird expert Laura Carberry, the manager of the Fisherville Brook Refuge in Exeter, has been conducting breeding bird surveys at Eppley each year to determine whether bird populations have changed in the desired way. And they have. The next step in the project is to further improve the habitat by monitoring and removing invasive species.
Audubon’s newest science-based effort is called Forestry for Rhode Island Birds, a collaboration with the Northern Rhode Island Conservation District, the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Rhode Island Woodland Partnership to boost targeted bird populations through forest management on private properties in the state.
Kate Sayles, the forestry and agriculture program manager at the Conservation District, said the program aims to address declining forest bird populations by creating and implementing demonstration sites and silviculture projects that enhance forest bird habitat. At the same time, the program educates landowners and forestry professionals about the benefits of managing land for wildlife, focusing on a dozen selected bird species. These particular birds were identified as representing priority habitats needing conservation.
“Working with URI ornithologists and other experts, we picked 12 bird species that are relatively easy to see or hear in the forest – birds that are fancy enough to get folks’ attention – and we plan forest habitat recommendations based on those species,” she said. “We then implement those projects on the ground.”
Bird Banding: The Audubon Kingston Wildlife Research Station has been banding birds and collecting data for almost 70 years.
Among the targeted birds are Pine Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, Eastern Wood-pewee, Pileated Woodpecker and Barred Owl. All are experiencing declines in their global populations and require large tracts of contiguous forest for breeding.
Three demonstration sites have been identified – a woodlot in Foster managed by the Rhode Island Forest Conservators Organization, the Norman Bird Sanctuary in Middletown, and a private landowner in Richmond – where forest management techniques that support birds can be showcased. At each site, Ruhren surveys plants and bird habitat characteristics and Carberry surveys birds before and after the management steps are taken to highlight how bird populations change.
“It’s all about showing the foresters what good management looks like,” Sayles said. “Foresters don’t typically focus on songbirds, so the key is to get them to look for important habitat features the birds need and to make recommendations based on that. It’s to get them to use birds as another important informational tool in their forest management plans.”
The second component of the program involves enrolling private landowners interested in managing their forested lands. Ruhren and Carberry have already conducted surveys at about 25 properties in two years and made recommendations to foresters developing management plans for those sites.
“It’s a no-brainer, as far as I’m concerned,” Ruhren said. “If you’re interested in maintaining your forest well, then most of what you’re likely to do is going to help the birds."
“Most of the forest in Rhode Island is privately owned, so this is allowing us to get in there and give these forest owners a reason to protect their forest,” added Carberry. “We’re working mostly with 10- to 20-acre plots and trying to encourage the owners to keep them intact.”
Not all of the landowners who initially enroll in the program end up implementing the recommendations, but the program still provides them with an education about how their forest management decisions affect wildlife.
“It’s important for folks to recognize that the birds and the forest are connected and to start thinking that way, to look at birds as a filter to understanding our woods,” Sayles said. “We want people to get comfortable with the idea of cutting trees, because a managed forest is a healthy forest, and we’re going to need all the help we can get to ensure our forests and birds are resilient.”
Members of the Youth Conservation League install bluebird boxes at the Maxwell Mays Wildlife Refuge in Coventry, RI.
The science behind the Providence Stormwater Innovation Center at Roger Williams Park, which Audubon leads in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, Providence Parks Department and Roger Williams Park Conservancy, is equally varied and robust.
The Center is demonstrating strategies for improving urban water quality and associated wildlife habitat through the use of innovative stormwater practices. A wide range of infrastructure has already been installed at the park to reduce stormwater contaminants from entering the ponds and degrading water quality. These structures and practices are also being used to provide hands-on training for municipalities, engineers, construction companies and scientists who will learn from the successes and failures of their design, implementation and maintenance.
“As Rhode Island faces more intense and frequent storms due to climate change, the impact and management of stormwater will become ever more critical,” said Taft. “Data collecting is in the early stages, but Audubon is proud to lead a project that will impact towns and cities around New England.”
A volunteer monitors water qaulity at the Providence Stormwater Innovation Center last year.
Over 40 projects have been installed in the Park to filter contaminants and treat stormwater runoff. Rain gardens have been constructed to treat stormwater by pooling water on the surface and allowing filtering and settling of suspended sediment as the water flows into the ground. Buffer plantings and bioswales have also been installed to treat stormwater and improve water quality, and a reduction in impervious surfaces – pavement – also aids the process. A key element of the project is monitoring water quality in the Park’s ponds as well as when water enters and leaves the Park to learn if the infrastructure improvements have had the desired effect. All of this work is being coordinated by Audubon staff member, Ryan Kopp.
“Audubon has always participated in and relied on science, and turned to research by experts to help inform our management practices, our stance in policy, and the kind of materials we offer in our educational programs,” concluded Taft. “That commitment to science continues with the Stormwater Innovation Center. Per our new strategic plan, science is front and center at Audubon. It’s part of who we are, and always will be.”