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A Talk on the Wild Side.

North Dakota: Climate and Disease Take Toll on American White Pelicans

A baby white pelican with a leg band
A banded white pelican chick at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge faces many threats — including storms, disease and predators — before it is mature enough to fledge. Pelicans’ earlier initiation of nesting is putting the chicks at greater risk. Photo: USFWS. Download.

Each April and May, in a rite of spring, American white pelicans begin arriving in their Northern Plains breeding grounds from the Gulf of Mexico.  But for the last several decades, something has put the large birds ahead of schedule.  That something, researchers believe, is warming tied to climate change — the same change that’s recently brought egrets, ibis and herons to nest on the refuge, well north of their long-time nesting areas.

The early birds are paying for their two-week head start with more chick deaths from severe spring storms.  For the pelicans, this setback comes on top of other major stressors, most notably West Nile Virus. If — and how — the pelicans will adapt is unclear.

One place scientists and wildlife managers are monitoring is Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in central North Dakota. The Chase Lake colony is one of the world’s four largest colonies of American white pelicans. 

As many as 35,000 white pelicans nest on Chase Lake’s remote wilderness islands. That’s up from 50 in 1908, when Teddy Roosevelt established the refuge to protect the species from being hunted to extinction. Despite the colony’s rebound, the great-winged birds are still considered vulnerable because they have so few breeding areas.

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New Jersey: Biologists Utilizing New Tools to Mitigate the Impact of Climate Change

Biologists standing on grass with a cityscape behind them

Refuge biologists head to the field at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge to study ways to manage marsh habitats in the face of climate change. The refuge hosted a workshop in 2010 so biologists from Northeastern national wildlife refuges could learn how to manage salt marshes to adapt to climate change. Photo: Bill Butcher, USFWS. 

Photo iconPhotos: View photos of E.B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge on Flickr

Video iconVideo: Watch a video about the climate change assessment tool

Edwin. B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Oceanville, New Jersey, is among the first wildlife refuges in the country to complete the Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for Shorebird Habitat, which not only measures how vulnerable a habitat is to the effects of climate change, but also enables managers to consider how to sustain such habitats.  The assessment looks at a range of stressors, including sea level rise, increased frequency and intensity of storms, and changes in precipitation and temperature.  

The assessment shows that climate change threats at Forsythe Refuge will be magnified over time, with much higher risk in 2100 as compared to 2025.  Potential risks include sea level rise inundating habitats, storms destroying beaches and dunes, erosion of tidal creek banks, ocean acidification affecting invertebrates that birds feed on, and heavy rainfall causing greater runoff of pollutants into tidal flats.

Refuge staff is using the assessment results to develop a habitat management plan.

Forsythe Refuge mainly consists of tidal salt meadow and marsh. Tens of thousands of migrating shorebirds, wading birds, ducks and geese use the refuge in the spring and fall to rest and eat the rich food resources. Other birds remain through the summer to nest and raise their young. 

Nesting habitats for American oystercatcher and piping plover, as well as stopover habitat for red knot during its lengthy fall migration are particularly vulnerable. 

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Michigan: Nesting Behavior May Provide Clues to Climate Change Effects in Bald Eagles

A bald eagle sits in a tree high in the sky

Bald eagles have overcome many challenges to their sustainability as a population. Service biologists are studying climate change effects on Michigan’s eagles.  Photo: Tim Kaufman.

Photo iconPhotos: Bald Eagle Banding in Michigan on Flickr

More than a half century of research has shown that bald eagles along Michigan’s shorelines and rivers are gradually beginning to nest earlier each season -- a potential indication of this iconic species’ response to changes in climate in the upper Midwest.

Bald eagles have overcome many challenges to the sustainability of their populations -- from loss of habitat to contamination of their food sources by pesticides and environmental contaminants.

National legislation banning the use of contaminants such as DDT and PCBs, coupled with habitat restoration in key portions of the eagle’s range, has resulted in a comeback for this beautiful raptor. More than 750 bald eagle pairs today fly the skies of Michigan, up from only 50 to 60 breeding pairs just half a century ago.

In 1961, University of Michigan graduate student Sergej Postupalsky began documenting bald historic and current eagle nesting sites and collecting banding data for the existing population in Michigan. Today, eagle research in Michigan spans state and federal agencies and academic institutions.

The result is more than 40 years of data on nesting, behavior, productivity, survival and overall population dynamics for bald eagles.  It is safe to say the bald eagles of Michigan are among the most documented and well-monitored birds in North America.

More recently, Dave Best, fish and wildlife biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) East Lansing Ecological Services Field Office, and Bill Bowerman, from the University of Maryland, have been studying bald eagles as indicators of water quality in the Great Lakes watershed of Michigan.  The two have seen a trend in coastal bald eagle nesting patterns that may point to the effects of the changing climate. 

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Virginia: Researchers use high-tech tools to predict and plan for sea level rise at Chincoteague

Beach and a fence

The Service is using sophisticated technology and models to make sea-level rise predictions at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The information can help managers understand potential changes to salt marshes and other key habitat. Photo: Greg Knadle/USFWS.

The 14,000 acres of pristine beaches, dunes, maritime forest and salt and freshwater marshes that comprise Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge at the southern end of Assateague Island in Virginia are a haven for wildlife, plants and people, who come to fish, crab and watch spectacular wildlife. But like most coastal areas, rising sea level due to a changing climate poses a major threat.

“Comparing older maps of the refuge and the town of Chincoteague with newer maps tells a distinct story,” said Lou Hinds, Chincoteague refuge manager. “The land mass is shrinking and sea level rise is the main culprit.”  

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and several partners took to the skies to get a more precise understanding of the topography of the refuge’s salt marshes to help predict the impact of salt water intrusion on plants and animals and how the landscape will evolve over time.

In partnership with NASA, the Service used LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) equipped aircraft to map some of the most environmentally sensitive areas on and surrounding the refuge. The Nature Conservancy conducted its own independent LIDAR flights over the area as well. LIDAR uses pulses of light to map at high resolution the physical features of a landscape.  

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South Dakota: No Ducking Climate Change Impacts to Prairie Pothole Wetlands

A northern shovler takes flight off water

Northern shovelers take flight at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota.  Prairie Pothole wetlands are at risk from a number of factors. Photo: Tom Koerner/USFWS.

Photo iconPhotos: South Dakota Photoset on Flickr

Video iconVideo: Embedded in story after "More"

The mallard feeding at the local park.  The flock of northern shovelers passing overhead.  The nesting pair of blue-winged teal.  All are common ducks and all depend on the rich habitat of North America’s wetlands – habitat that may be affected by climate change.

The Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) - named for its many glacial depressions, commonly referred to as potholes - is seasonally home to many wetland bird species.  The region is often referred to as North America’s “duck factory” because the potholes support more than 50 percent of the continent’s breeding waterfowl. South Dakota contains a large portion of the remaining wetlands in the PPR, which contribute significantly to annual production of wetland birds, including migratory waterfowl.

As European settlers moved into the PPR, more than half of its potholes were lost. Subsequent generations drained potholes at a rapid rate to create fields fit for agriculture.  The once plentiful prairie wetlands declined in number.

The establishment of many national wildlife refuges since the 1930s, and waterfowl production areas (WPAs) since the 1960s, has helped to preserve habitat as many of the PPR’s wetlands were drained.

Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) works with partners like Ducks Unlimited to protect vital waterfowl habitat in the PPR by purchasing permanent easements from willing landowners protecting covered wetlands in perpetuity from draining, filling, or burning.

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Connecticut: Shoring up a Shrinking Island for Endangered Roseate Terns

Aerial view of Falkner island, a 4.5 acre crescent shaped island with a rocky coast

An aerial view of Falkner Island, home to the only roseate tern nesting colony in Connecticut Photo: U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary

The roseate tern is a federally endangered seabird whose favored nesting areas are found on rocky offshore islands and barrier beaches along the north Atlantic coast of the U.S.

Unfortunately, the tern is losing some of its prime seacoast habitat. The land is disappearing due to erosion that may be made worse by climate change. Increasing atmospheric temperatures are linked to rising seas and more intense storms, which eat away at the shore.

Falkner Island, off the Connecticut coast in Long Island Sound, is home each spring to 40 to 50 pairs of nesting roseate terns – the only colony remaining in the state. Most of the terns nest on the north spit of the island, a sand and cobble environment.

Falkner Island is a unit of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in Connecticut. Refuge Manager Rick Potvin estimates that the island is losing about 300 to 400 square feet of land each year due to erosion. He predicts that in the next few years the north spit nesting area will revert to tidal zone and will become unsuitable habitat for breeding terns.

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Vermont: Climate Change Poses Challenges for the Bicknell’s Thrush

Bicknell's thrush perched in an evergreen

Bicknell’s thrush nest in mountain-top evergreen forests in Vermont, areas that are shrinking due to global warming. Photo: © T.B. Ryder

Watch a video of a Bicknell’s thrush feeding her young.

Bicknell’s thrush has one of the most restricted breeding ranges of any North American bird, nesting primarily in stunted spruce-fir forests found at or near the highest elevations of mountains in Vermont and other New England states. These mountain tops are like a chain of islands separated by a sea of habitat that is unsuitable for this species.

As the climate warms and precipitation patterns change, deciduous trees – those that shed their leaves in the fall – are likely to become more prevalent in higher elevations, shrinking the size of the mountain-top evergreen conifer forests that are home to the Bicknell's thrush.

This is just one of many challenges that climate change poses for the rare bird.

Another potential threat is a mismatch between the arrival time in spring of Bicknell’s thrush and other birds, which is regulated by day length, and the abundance of insect prey, linked to temperature. If the peak food supply for birds comes earlier due to warmer spring temperatures, late arriving birds may lay fewer eggs and produce offspring that have less chance of reaching adulthood.

The red squirrel, which also lives in the mountain-top forests, also presents a danger. The squirrels feed mainly on spruce and fir cones, but will also raid the nests of Bicknell’s thrush to feed on eggs and young birds.

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505050 Week in Review (Week of May 16th)

If you missed a story in our climate change series this week, don't worry!  We've got the rundown of last week's stories right here. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. As always, we love to hear what you think. 

Maine : Rising Temperatures and Declining Snowfall Spell Trouble for Canada Lynx 
With temperatures predicted to rise in the coming years, the deep snow cover that the Canada lynx depends on may be significantly reduced, eliminating its competitive advantage over other predators. 

Lynx kitten with ear tag for future identification.
Minnesota : Warmer Temperatures Take a Toll on Minnesota Moose 
Minnesota ’s iconic moose might be the seven-foot-tall, 1,000 pound version of the canary in the coal mine. The large antlered animal appears on the verge of being pushed out of its southernmost historic range by climate change and other stressors. 

Minnesota Moose
Wyoming : Warmer Winter Temperatures Fuel Mountain Pine Beetle Infestation 
Driven by climate changes, Lodgepole pine forests of the Intermountain west are undergoing an unprecedented epidemic of the native mountain pine beetle. 

Three Toed Woodpecker

Mississippi : A Terrapin’s View of Climate Change 

The 10,216-acre Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge is under threat from the very thing that gives it life – the Gulf of Mexico and its changing sea levels. 

Diamondback Terrapin
Texas : In Face of Climate Change, Coast Is Not Clear for Whooping Cranes 
Even though a record-breaking 281 whooping cranes wintered this past season at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas, climate change is a major concern for the charismatic endangered species. 

Whooping Cranes

West Virginia: Reforestation Helps the Cerulean Warbler, Reduces CO2

A blue warbler

Cerulean warblers spend their lives in the treetops of the Appalachian Mountains and South America. Deforestation threatens their existence, and is a factor in climate change. Photo: Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Video iconVideo: Clip of a cerulean warbler feeding her young

The forests of West Virginia are home to the breeding grounds for the cerulean warbler, a bright blue songbird famous for its distinctive call.

Unfortunately for the cerulean warbler, those same West Virginia forests are also home to coal mining operations, including mountaintop mining. That’s the practice of cutting down forests, then removing the ridge-tops to access underlying supplies of coal. The practice removes the ridge-tops preferred by the cerulean warbler, and inhibits new tree growth for decades, if not centuries. It’s a factor in the species’ decline, which has a population that’s roughly one-third of what it was 40 years ago.

On a much larger scale, scientists say that mountaintop mining for coal is accelerating climate change in two ways: It removes trees that would otherwise soak up carbon dioxide, and it facilitates the burning of coal to produce electricity, one of the main ways carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping greenhouse gas that is changing the Earth’s climate.

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Delaware: Betting on Survival in Delaware Bay

A close-up of a red knot

A red knot tagged for research rests and refuels in Mispillion Harbor, Delaware. Climate changes such as sea-level rise and increasing storm intensity are adding challenges to red knot survival. Photo: Gregory Breese/USFWS.

Camera iconMore photos: Delaware Bay Estuary Project photoset on Flickr

Video iconRelated video: Crash: A Tale of Two Species on PBS.org

Not far from the casinos of Atlantic City, a different kind of wager takes place each May along the shores of Delaware Bay. 

That’s when red knots, birds the size of a coffee mug, stake their future on the eggs laid by tens of thousands of horseshoe crabs. Without enough crab eggs to fuel them, the long-distance fliers may not survive their 10,000-mile spring trek from the southern tip of South America to their Arctic breeding grounds.

In recent years, the red knots’ bet on the crab eggs has been more of a crapshoot. First, the over-harvesting of horseshoe crabs for bait caused an egg shortage. Now, scientists also point to a wild card.

“The peak of horseshoe crabs spawning in Delaware Bay has not always been aligned with the migration of the red knots,” said Gregory Breese, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s project leader for the Delaware Bay Estuary Project. “That could be related to climate change.”

Changing water temperatures in Delaware Bay and more frequent and intense storms appear to be disrupting the synchronization between the spawning of the crabs and the arrival of the red knots. When waters warm, the crabs lay their eggs earlier, and other creatures may beat red knots to the feast.

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