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Declining: Our feathered friends aren’t so fine these days

(Oct. 3, 2014) A recent national study is not for the birds, but is about the birds and is for the people who like them, study them and want to protect them, as drops in the populations of some species have become more pronounced.

Roman Jesien, left, and Bill Mahoney, both of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, count tern nests on Reedy Island, just north of Skimmer Island near the Route 50 bridge, in June. In all, they tallied 384 nests on the small island where the birds gather in large numbers to protect themselves from predators. MCBP conducts the count annually keep track of the bird population. (Clara Vaughn | Ocean City Today)

The “State of the Birds” report came out last month, combining the forces of 23 federal government, university and conservation groups that make up the U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative.

The report’s authors call the results unsettling, but as Dave Wilson, executive director for Maryland Coastal Bays Program put it, “It depends on the species. The ones that are having problems — those were already in decline,” Wilson said. “The ones that were doing well are doing great.”

With development slowing here, climate change is the major culprit causing the declines, he said.

Rising Tides

Marsh- and sand-dependent birds — those exposed to the tides — are doing the worst, Wilson said.

“We’ve already lost two feet of marsh in the past 20 or 30 years and we continue to see marsh erode at accelerating rates,” he said. “There are a lot of species that live just in the marsh and that concerns us.”

For example, the coastal bays host one of the East Coast’s largest populations of Saltmarsh Sparrows, which nest along high marsh meadows. That species saw a 23 percent drop on Maryland’s Eastern Shore from the 1980s to early 2000s, according to the most recent “Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Maryland and the District of Columbia.” Another local marshland resident is the seldom-seen Virginia Rail.

“For this area, it’s mostly from climate issues. Development has slowed,” Wilson said, though increasingly paved surfaces still pose a threat to birds.

The national report shows a 50 percent decline over the last four decades in 19 shorebird species, including the charismatic Red Knot, Hudsonian Godwit and Ruddy Turnstone that pass through during migration each year. More than half of all U.S. shorebird species are on the “Watch List,” including the piping plover.

“Long-distance migrants require healthy stopover habitats along their entire pathway, and the chain of sites is only as strong as the weakest link,” the report says.

Coasting on the Coast

While marsh-dwelling species are in trouble, ‘State of the Birds’ shows a “steady rise” among the coastal species it examined — thanks in large part to the establishment of 160 national coastal wildlife refuges and nearly 600,000 acres of national seashore since 1968.

“There’s been a lot of tidal and non-tidal wetlands money over the past 10 years or so … There’s also been a concerted effort to protect habitat where these coastal birds breed,” Wilson said.

Local work that has helped feathered fowl includes replenishing crumbling islands in the coastal bays, where colonial waterbirds gather and nest.

“We’ve actually seen some improvements in areas where we did restoration work like Skimmer Island,” the small plot just north of the Route 50 bridge, Wilson said.

Those islands are especially important because species like herons and egrets nest in colonies on only two spots in our coastal bays, he added.

“They’re one of the reasons we do island restoration,” Wilson said.

However, other island-reliant species such as black skimmers and royal terns are in sharp decline. The two breed on Reedy Island, behind Macky’s Bayside Bar & Grille on 54th Street, and have faced a major loss of habitat, Wilson said.

Other problems include coastal engineering projects such as sea walls, especially on the densely populated East Coast.

Concern in the Grasslands

Most people don’t picture fields and forests when they think of Ocean City, but those are where the steepest declines in bird populations are happening.

As farming has become more efficient and less land is open for cattle grazing, species whose haunts include hayfields, pastures and overgrown swaths have dropped by more than 30 percent in the eastern United States, the report shows.

Bobwhites, or quail, a favorite game bird, have all but disappeared from the landscape, as have Eastern Meadowlarks. In addition, fewer Song and Vesper Sparrows are flying the skies.

Another obstacle these birds face is invasive plants that have taken over some fields and wooded wetlands, Wilson said. Meanwhile, small predators like raccoons, foxes and even domestic cats put a sizable dent in bird populations.

“Its pretty deplorable,” Wilson said. “We’ve urbanized a lot of the state of Maryland, so we have these much smaller open areas of grassland and the predation is just amazing.”

Forest-dwelling birds are on less of a decline, “but the trend is still going in the wrong direction,” he said.

For example, birds such as warblers that nest in forest canopies are doing better as protections have increased, allowing once-clear-cut areas to flourish back into mature woodlands. But the forest’s ground-dwellers such as the Wood Thrush are falling behind as invasive plants come in and deer nibble away at their habitat.

‘Habitat is the Key’

Shrinking habitat remains the biggest problem facing birds.

“Habitat is the key — if we can keep more of that there, it’s going to help the birds,” Wilson said.

Some major projects have already helped in that respect. In Worcester County, the Natural Resources Conservation Service has run several ventures to help restore the natural flow of the Pocomoke River, bringing back the native Cyprus swamp and improving water quality.

Workers have added more than 600 cubic yards of sand to Skimmer Island over the last four years — though Hurricane Sandy undid the first two years’ work, Wilson said.

The Maryland Rural Legacy Program has helped protected tens of thousands of acres south of Public Landing, near Snow Hill, and other areas are protected and undergoing restoration work, he said.

Some projects, like the Lizard Hill site in Bishopville, are a “constant battle,” however. “We have had hundreds of volunteers up there over the past three years” restoring Atlantic White Cedar trees, Wilson said, but invasive non-native plants continue to make a comeback.

Protecting large, adjacent areas will be key in serving the birds, which need them for food and cover, he said.

“There’s still a long way to go.”

How to Help

With so many factors at play, it’s easy to feel lost in the fray, but individuals can take measures at home to help declining species of birds.

Keeping household cats indoors is one. Cats kill more than 2 billion birds in the United States annually, compared to less than 600 deaths per year when birds collide with windows, according to the report.

Even with a small yard, homeowners can create habitat for local or migrating species by replacing grass with tress, especially fruit and berry trees, Wilson said.

A good rule of thumb is to “keep areas as untidy as possible,” he said.

People can also seek alternatives to chemical-heavy products when shopping.

Humans have already help their feathered friends in some ways. A movement to provide bluebird boxes starting in the 1980s has helped the species bounce back, for example, and other yard bird species like cardinals and redwing black birds are doing well.

“There are some good success stories,” Wilson said.

“We often try to tell people why birds are important,” he said. “They’re extremely important for controlling pests. They eat millions and millions of pounds of insects each year. They’re food for other things we eat. They do a tremendous job of seed dispersal. And, of course, people love hunting, too — ducks, geese quail, turkeys.”

But, he added, “Some of us feel like birds have inherent value just like a person has an inherent value.”

For the full “State of the Birds” report, a list of common species in sharp decline and other more information, visit www.stateofthebirds.org.

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