What's New in the World of Bird Research?

Schantz Scholars Speak to Audubon Alaska

Each year, millions of birds flock to Alaska during the great spring migration to enjoy swarms of sustenance during the lengthening days. The state is also visited by birders who arrive in droves to see their favorite feathered friends touch down after long flights from all over the world. Bird festivals, such as the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, are a chance to celebrate the return of birds and birders alike, and to discover why Alaska is one of the most popular destinations for migratory birds.

Last May, Audubon Alaska caught up with special guests at the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival during a drive home from Homer to Anchorage. Hannah Clipp and Joel Such, two scholarship recipients from the Schantz Brothers Foundation, shared with us how they are enhancing our collective understanding of birds. We’ve captured some of their findings in an interview for you here.

Interview with Hannah Clipp

Hannah Clipp is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia. The university is also associated with the West Virginia Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit. Hannah’s current dissertation is looking at the effects of climate and landscape scale forest management on songbirds in the Appalachian Mountains, along with bird abundance and communities in the area.

Audubon Alaska (AA): Can you give a description of your research and the presentation you gave at the festival?

Hannah Clip (HC): I was using weather surveillance radar to look at bird migration along the northern Gulf of Mexico coast from Texas to Florida, and over northern Gulf of Mexico for my master’s thesis at the University of Delaware. I was specifically looking at stopover sites where birds were stopping over to rest and feed. I was interested in studying how broad-scale weather and winds over the Gulf of Mexico affect stopover distributions along the gulf coast. In my research, I found that broad-scale weather does have an influence on stopover patterns. Broad-scale weather is synoptic weather, which means continental patterns of weather where high and low weather pressures systems are and general wind patterns. So that did significantly influence the stopover distributions of migratory birds along the coast, specifically during spring migration.

AA: What do you hope your thesis contributes to the scientific community?

HC: Gaining a better understanding of bird migration and stopover ecology, and determining stopover sites with consistently high numbers of birds can help with conservation and prioritizing the protection of stopover sites. If we identify sites with consistently high numbers of birds then we can prioritize those sites for protection because birds need stopover sites for resting and refueling. We don’t want to develop those sites or lower the habitat quality of those sites. 

AA: Can you describe some of the threats facing birds?

HC: Along the coast, urban development is a big threat. The other big threat is artificial light at night. When birds are migrating at night and we have a lot of artificial light at night in our urban areas, birds can become disoriented and attracted to low quality habitat. Which is why turning lights off at night for cities is so important. This is something I highlighted in my talk in terms of applications of weather radar to bird migration. There is a site called BirdCast and it provides live migration maps and migration forecasts based on weather radar.

 AA: How did coming to Homer impact your studies and career?

HC: I met a lot of wildlife professionals in Alaska which was good networking. It is pretty unique and inspiring to see the wildlife and how the land is protected, and how people interact with wildlife and the wildlife refuges. I also saw three life birds: the first was Western Sandpiper at the Mud Bay viewing station, and then the Bar-tailed Godwit and the Rock Sandpiper at the end of the Homer Spit. I really enjoyed seeing moose in Homer – that was a highlight, too.

AA: What did you like most about the festival?

I really appreciate the generosity of all the birders and festival attendees that Joel and I met – everyone is really generous in spirit and welcoming. I want to express my sincerest gratitude to Mike Schantz for facilitating our participation and travel to the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival. He went above and beyond to make sure that we were accommodated and had the best experience possible. It would not have been the same without him there, and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to not only meet him and participate in events with him, but also to learn about his family and particularly his two brothers, in whose memory the Schantz Brothers Foundation was established. I also truly appreciate the efforts of Beth Trowbridge, Executive Director of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, and Melanie Dufour, the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival Coordinator.

Interview with Joel Such

For the past four years, Joel Such has based his studies in Colombia, where he completed his bachelor’s degree and is now continuing on with his master’s degree in Conservation Biology, both through Prescott College in Arizona. As a Schantz Brothers Foundation scholarship recipient, Joel attended the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival and presented his research involving a bird monitoring program he developed in the Tatamá National Natural Park in the Western Andes of Colombia.

Audubon Alaska (AA): We’re excited to hear more about the presentation you gave at the bird festival. Can you share what your research involves?  

Joel Such (JS): My research focuses on a bird monitoring program in the Tatamá National Natural Park and its buffer zone in the Western Andes of Colombia. I developed a protocol to study the entire avian community in the cloud forest ecozone of the national park. It’s a very diverse area with over 600 species of birds in one location, including the Northern Waterthrush that migrates to Alaska.

AA: That sounds like important research. What was the protocol you developed?  

JS: My focus was developing something that’s ethical, non-invasive, purely observational, and efficient. Because the terrain in this ecosystem is really rough and super steep with dense vegetation, traditional bird monitoring programs in North America can’t easily be applied there. Through long-term monitoring and the use of an innovative and rigorous data collection protocol, I worked to generate baseline data of the region’s bird life. It is my hope to identify population trends, increase the knowledge of understudied species and ecological communities, inform conservation actions, and contribute knowledge to local and scientific communities.  

AA: What were some of your learnings from the research?

JS:  For my thesis, I’m studying altitudinal migration. There are multiple rainy and dry seasons per year and the majority of the birds move up and downslope in correlation to these seasons. During drier periods, birds move upslope, while during wetter periods, birds move downslope. It is my hope that this study will help gain support for buffer zones of protected areas. You can look at a pristine mountaintop and think that these birds have no threats because there is no interaction with people, but that is far from the truth. Depending on the season, they could be moving further down in elevation where they might encounter degraded land outside the protected area.

AA: Can you describe some of the bird species you study?

JS: I am conducting my research at Montezuma Rainforest Reserve and Eco-Lodge, one of the top birding destinations in Colombia. There are reports of nearly 600 birds here, 16 of which are endemic to Colombia, including the Gold-ringed Tanager, Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer, Munchique Wood-Wren, and the Dusky Starfrontlet (also known as Glittering Starfrontlet). The Dusky Starfrontlet is one of the rarest hummingbird species in the world with an estimated 250 individuals left in the wild. They’re seen on only a few different mountains in the Western Andes.

The lodge is run by a local family that turned from farming to ecotourism after the national park expanded over their small community about twenty years ago. In the face of many obstacles, they created a conservation-minded business and reserve that has allowed them to stay on their land and sustain the family.

AA: What’s something you’ve learned during your research?

JS: In the tropics, climate change is actually really having a significant impact on the landscape. In the Andes, there is something called upslope displacement. Upslope displacement is where the biological communities are moving upslope due to warming temperatures and this is very concerning because they can only go so high. It’s been coined the escalator to extinction.

 AA: What do you suggest our readers can do to help address climate change?

JS: The whole world is connected, so it’s up to everybody to each make their own positive impact on the world in terms of conservation. In the global north, we really need to work at minimizing our carbon footprint. Also, reforestation and community-based conservation is really important in restoring and protecting habitat. Ecotourism has a positive impact in Colombia and other places in Latin America, as locals have the option of reforesting and protecting native habitat to earn an alternative livelihood, as opposed to deforestation for timber, agriculture, and cattle grazing.

AA: What do you think of Alaska and your experience at the festival as a Schantz Scholar?

JS: Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve dreamed of coming to Alaska and I finally made it thanks to the Schantz Brothers’ scholarship program. The Schantz Brothers Foundation was established in memory of twin brothers Tom and Tim, who were both deeply connected to Alaska and its avian community. It was a beautiful experience coming to Homer, Alaska to not only witness the natural beauty of the area, but also to connect with such a friendly and supportive local community. It was especially incredible to go out onto the water and observe the seabirds and shorebirds, particularly the Tufted Puffins.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to expand my horizons in Alaska and would like to express my deep gratitude to the Schantz Brothers Foundation and its partners for making the experience possible. Alaska is truly a special place in the world and I will most certainly return in the future.

Common Murres Photo: Joel Such

How you can help, right now