High Stakes for our High Peaks: Working to Conserve Montane Birds of the Northern Forest in the Face of Climate Change

JUL 18, 2016    by TIMOTHY DUCLOS

Taking a break atop Mt. Webster, White Mountain National Forest, NH. Photo: Tim Duclos

While the mountains of the Northeast may not be the tallest nor the most remote compared to others within North America, they contribute just as much to the natural and cultural value of the surrounding landscape as any other. Stretching from the Catskills and Adirondacks of New York to the Greens of Vermont, Whites of New Hampshire, and all the way up to Katahdin in Maine, the mountains of the Northern Forest are a formidable and irreplaceable feature of the Northeastern landscape. As they rise in elevation, both the climate and geology change.  As a result, the forest itself changes; hardwoods first slowly give way to red spruce and balsam fir, then before tree-line, the forest, completely warped by the harsh climate, transitions into a thick and stunted forest known as the “krumholdtz”- a German word meaning “bent, twisted, and crooked”.   Anybody who has attempted to traverse such forest can testify to the applicability of this term.  Alongside this change in the forest, as well as climatic condition, the animal community also changes.  Existing in these high elevation areas are birds, plants, and other animals that cannot be found anywhere else in lower areas. As such, our high areas contribute greatly to regional biodiversity and for this reason alone their conservation and protection must be a priority.  

I believe it is the change in elevation and biodiversity that attracts many of us to adventure in these areas—we seek them to quite literally elevate our senses and expand our perspective.  It is partly for this reason that from my earliest days I have been in love with the mountains.  I’ve been long captivated by the independence, wonder, and challenge that comes with living out of a backpack while hiking long distances across the landscape; indeed, I have through hiked Vermont’s Long Trail and completed much of the Appalachian Trail.   Consequently, it is of no surprise that as a young career scientist and conservation ecologist I am working to conserve and protect these special areas for many generations to come

Commanding view of the Presidential range from atop Mt. Jefferson, south to Mt. Washington. Photo: Tim Duclos

Our mountains face an ever growing multitude of threats, most notable of which are climate change, pollution, and incompatible forms of land use such as poorly sited timber harvest, recreational infrastructure, and wind facilities.  However, while many high elevation areas are actually already conserved, protected, or otherwise managed against incompatible forms of land use, climate change is an external force existent beyond the direct control of any land manager. Climate change threatens to disrupt the delicate balance between climate and forests that together comprise suitable habitat for the species absolutely dependent upon these areas for their existence.  This threat is very real- as we have already started to see the effects of climate change upon mountain ecosystems across the world.    

One way ecologists measure changes in an ecosystem is to monitor the state of species that closely associate with certain environments.  Ecologists call such species “environmental indicators” or simply “indicator species”. The diversity of birds as well as their respective associations with certain environments makes birds just such excellent indicators. Furthermore, birds are an integral part of their respective ecosystems as well as a charismatic suite of species that many people care tremendously about.   For these reasons, the US Forest Service and their collaborators, such as the Vermont Center for Ecostudies,  have been monitoring high elevation bird communities in the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) of New Hampshire for decades.  Analyses of these data reveal that several species of the high elevation bird communities are on the decline.  Moreover, bird communities across the montane landscape are shifting in their elevational distribution; a phenomenon which has also been observed in other mountains across North America. A decline in the population as well as shifts in their distributions are major causes for concern and also indicate that other changes are likely happening in these mountains.

It may not come as a surprise that the temperature has been changing in the mountains of the Northeast as a result of global climate change; indeed, evidence suggests that temperature has been increasing across all elevations in our mountains. Concurrently, shifts in the elevational distribution in the forest community along elevation has been widely observed- the leading cause of which is hypothesized to be the effects of acid deposition, land use change, and climate change.  It stands to reason that the changes we are observing in our bird population may predominantly be a result of a change in suitable climate, forest structure/composition, or some combination of both- at least this is what I posit is going on.

Conducting point counts in the spruce-fir forest. Photo: Tim Duclos

Before resource managers can fully take action to protect and conserve our montane species in the face of climate change, managers first require more information regarding exactly how, and to what degree, montane climate affects birds.  Such information would allow managers to accurately identify areas of the forest that, if managed accordingly, will present both the climate and forest community that together comprise suitable habitat for vulnerable mountain birds.  However, to date, little to no information exists describing the fine-scale association between the birds inhabiting these forested areas and the climate during the summer breeding season. We already know that forests and climate are forecasted to change at different rates. Thus in order to predict how these birds are going to be affected by climate change, we need a better understanding of the relative importance of climate and forest structure/composition for these birds. 

It is this valuable information which I am working hard to provide through my current research in the WMNF. I have spent nearly every day of the last two summers diligently counting birds, measuring forest community structure and species composition, and deploying temperature recorders located at 150 study sites ranging across 15 Presidential Mountains in the White Mountain National Forest.  To date I have personally hiked nearly 700 miles for this project, and I honestly could not think of a better way to spend my time and career. I mean, lets face it- I’m getting paid to radically advance my skills and abilities as an ecologist, hike in the mountains I know and love, and contribute to the protection and conservation of an ecosystem that is inherently, functionally and culturally tremendously valuable.  How does it get any better than that?

All-in-all through this work, my colleagues and I are unraveling and describing the relationship between our montane birds and vital components of their habitat.  My results, alongside the concurrent work of many others, is contributing critical information to researchers and managers that will improve the conservation and protection of these special bird species, their habitats, and the wild character of our great mountains, far into the future.   As for me, I know that I will not rest until I have done all that I can to ensure that our future generations can continue to enjoy the same unique nature of these mountains that makes them so special today. 

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