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spacer spacer spacer spacer spacer May 21, 2009
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Lake Ontario provides backdrop for migratory bird research

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Professor John Waud, lead scientist, will help collect data to survey stopover sites for the migratory birds in his research area.

Submitted photograph

An ambitious effort in avian conservation is underway this spring throughout the New York portion of the Lake Ontario watershed.

A legion of highly skilled volunteer ornithologists is helping a team of scientists to identify the best stopover sites for migrating birds in the southern coastal zone of Lake Ontario. The study specifically focuses on Neotropical migrants, or songbirds that summer in the subarctic part of Canada through northern New York and winter in Central America and the northern part of South America.

The fieldwork conducted by the volunteers will help verify a model that uses geographic information systems technology to select optimal resting locations based on distance from the lakeshore and the extent and diversity of wood cover.

A pilot phase funded with $35,000 from the Nature Conservancy and in-kind support from the Audubon Society began the last week of April and will run through the end of May.

The effort anticipates the launch this fall of a federally funded three-year project to be administered by the Nature Conservancy.

“Conservation of migratory birds requires the protection of a network of stopover sites where birds can rest and put on weight for the next leg of the journey,” says John Waud, professor of environmental science and lead scientist on the study. “These sites have to be rich in food and have cover so the birds aren’t exposed to predators when eating. They need a lot of these stopover sites and these sites are the focus of conservation right now for migratory bird species.”

Migrating birds travel several hundred miles to their destinations. Radar shows that birds fly approximately 10 hours at night at 30 miles per hour—or 200 to 300 miles a night. According to Waud, as much as 85 percent of deaths in migratory bird populations occur while en route to their wintering or breeding grounds. The conservation of stopover sites is critical to migrating birds.

“The goal of the project is to produce a GIS-based tool that will allow the Nature Conservancy, Audubon and other conservation groups to focus on preserving the most important places,” says Waud.

Volunteer ornithologists participating in the pilot study are visiting 21 different sites having two transects each during the peak migration of Neotropical migrant birds, such as wood warblers, vireos and thrush. They will spend 30 minutes walking along a 300-meter transect, documenting every bird-related detail they hear and see within a 25-meter-wide path on either side of a flagged line. The volunteers will make their observations between dawn and four hours after dawn twice a week for four weeks. Every week, their assignments will change to account for variability in observations.

Data from the pilot project will be used to verify the best stopover sites for Neotropical migrants and will help refine the study before the larger three-year effort begins in the fall. The next phase will focus on 72 sites selected by the model based on distance from the lakeshore and the extent and diversity of wood cover. The follow-up phase to the site-identification project may involve bird-banding studies to show directly the benefit of the stopover sites to the Neotropical migrants.

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Susan Gawlowicz

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