State of the Birds 2020: The first in-depth look at how the pandemic is affecting conservation
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December 3, 2020 — Bird conservation and research didn’t stop when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March. But they were affected in ways big and small, usually for the worse but in some cases creating opportunities for conservationists to adapt and make the best of a bad situation.
That’s the main finding of Connecticut Audubon’s 2020 State of the Birds report, released today. Titled “Pandemic: Conservationists scramble in the field, the lab, and the legislature,” the report is the first in-depth look at how COVID-19 and the lockdown are affecting conservation in Connecticut.
The report describes a tough year for the federally-threatened Piping Plovers that nest on Connecticut’s beaches.
It details a legislative session in Connecticut during which conservation was stuck in neutral; and one in Washington D.C. where conservationists were mostly on defense against the dismantling of the country’s most important bird protection law.
It includes articles by scientists who explain how they were forced to curtail conservation research and field work, and how they tried to adapt.
And yet the news was not all bleak. Two vulnerable species — American Oystercatchers and Black Skimmers — did unusually well in 2020, perhaps because some beach-nesting areas were less crowded. And the organizers of an important citizen science project, the Connecticut Bird Atlas, used the lockdown to extend data collection for an extra year, resulting in a “huge success” for the project.
“Pandemic” is the 15th annual State of the Birds report published by the Connecticut Audubon Society. Read the Recommendations here.
The Audubon Alliance is Essential
This year’s authors are University of Connecticut Ph.D. candidates Sam Apgar and Eliza Grames; Tykee James, National Audubon Society’s coordinator of government affairs; Amy Blaymore Paterson, executive director of the Connecticut Land Conservation Council; UConn Professor Chris S. Elphick; Scott Kruitbosch, manager of Connecticut programs for the Roger Tory Peterson Institute; and Jim Arrigoni, land manager for the Connecticut Audubon Society.
The report confirms the importance of the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds in protecting the state’s Piping Plover population.
The Alliance, of which Connecticut Audubon is a member, has been organizing teams of volunteers and coordinating staff to protect beach-nesting birds since 2012. In recent years, Connecticut’s Piping Plovers have successfully fledged enough chicks to make the population self-sustaining if carried out over a wide enough area — on average more than 1.5 chick per nest.
But that changed in 2020. In his article, “For Beach-Nesting Birds, A Potential Disaster is Averted,” Scott Kruitbosch reported that full protection efforts by staff and volunteers had to wait until late June and July. Because Piping Plovers arrive in Connecticut in March, this meant that the birds remained unprotected for critical weeks of the nesting season. The result was a nesting success rate of only one chick per nest — far below the 1.5 of recent years.
Patrick Comins, Connecticut Audubon’s executive director, described this as a real-time experiment in the effectiveness of the Alliance.
“The results were stark. When the Alliance is out there working, Connecticut’s Piping Plovers do extraordinarily well,” he said. “But in 2020 the need to keep the staff and volunteers safe meant the Alliance couldn’t work at full-strength, and these birds didn’t do well. It’s a strong argument for making sure the Alliance is at its strongest in the future.”
Gutting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act
In “The Dismantling of a Key Bird Protection Law Proceeded as Work to Replace It Stalled,” Tykee James, described how the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which has been protecting birds since 1918, is being gutted in Washington.
“If efforts to dismantle the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act are successful, birds will suffer, and people will feel the effects too,” he wrote. “If instead, we find common ground and the [replacement] Migratory Bird Protection Act becomes law, the benefits for birds and people will be monumental.”
On the state level, Amy Paterson wrote that supporters of open space funding, which is one of the keys to habitat protection, will need to be especially active in 2021.
She wrote: “With an unprecedented number of people turning to the outdoors for refuge and recreation during COVID-19 against a backdrop of increasing threats from climate change, an alarming loss of biodiversity, and a roll-back of federal environmental protections for wildlife and humans, investing in land conservation is needed now more than ever.”
On the research front, Sam Apgar, who is part of a regional group studying birds that nest in tidal marshes, cancelled a season of fieldwork that she and her team had scheduled in Connecticut. Among other things, she is studying how Saltmarsh Sparrows, which have been described as being on a “trajectory to extinction” because of sea-level rise, are adapting to higher tides. Apgar concentrated on data analysis instead
Her colleague at UConn, Eliza Grames, was luckier. She had finished her fieldwork on Connecticut’s Ovenbirds before the lockdown and was able to proceed as planned with her data analysis.
On the lower Connecticut River, Connecticut Audubon’s Jim Arrigoni was expecting to work with six young college scientists on the fourth season of a five-year study of submerged vegetation in the rivers’ coves. Only two of the six were able to participate. The work has documented changes that might be affecting migrating waterfowl, which rely on the submerged plants for food. Arrigoni is hoping to fish the work with a full team in 2021.