IN THIS ISSUE
Spring Is Here, and So Are the Birds
Anthony Zemba, CHMM, is an environmental specialist, certified ecologist and FHI’s resident avian expert. So it wasn’t unusual for him to get a call from a construction manager on site with a potential problem about nesting birds.
“I’m pretty sure I have a piping plover,” the construction manager told Zemba. A piper plover, for those less astute in avian matters, is a federally protected species, and their presence on a construction site could have caused serious problems for the project. But Zemba wasn’t worried. He had just one question: Does this bird have two rings around its neck or one? The construction manager confirmed Zemba’s suspicion: there were two rings.
“That’s a killdeer,” Zemba told the construction manager. “As I expected.” Piping plovers, while native to New England, are only seen around the shore on sandy beaches in this area of the country. This inland construction site would have been a very unusual place to find the protected bird, so with just one phone call, the construction manager was able to head off a potential problem with a quick answer.
“I was still able to give advice over the phone about how to protect the species while continuing construction,” Zemba said.
While most people consider the sight of a robin as the first signs of spring, Zemba says the killdeer is actually a much better indicator.
“Robins are here year-round, so to say robins are a sign of spring isn’t really true,” Zemba said. Robins can switch their diet to eat berries left on winter trees, but killdeers eat invertebrates in the ground.
“Killdeers can’t come back to the inland locations until the ground isn’t frozen,” Zemba said. So when you see those birds with the distinctive two rings around their necks, you know spring is here. Another common misconception about birds is that they don’t start nesting until springtime, but that’s not true from some species.
“Great-horned owls and bald eagles start nesting in the winter,” Zemba said. “They may start building a nest in February and be sitting on eggs in late February or March.”
Those early dates mean the birds have often set up camp before construction season begins, but the presence of a nest doesn’t necessarily mean a construction project is doomed.
“We have done monitoring of eagles nests for construction projects to make sure there’s no impact on the eagles while they’re nesting.,” Zemba said. Over time, those kinds of efforts have proven successful, as the population of bald eagles has increased over time.
There are a number of protected species that are native to the Northeast, and having an avian expert on hand for a construction project is important.
“If there’s going to be a proposed development that requires state permitting, they need to find ways to minimize or mitigate impact,” Zemba said.
There are different kinds of environmental impact: direct or indirect, temporary or permanent. Zemba cited the development of Rentschler Field as an example. The airfield around Pratt & Whitney is now home to a football stadium and ancillary development. But the process required State permitting, so environmental impacts had to be assessed.
“There were probably half a dozen protected species known to occur on the field,” Zemba said. To make up for the loss of grassland at the airfield, the State purchased a large swath of former agricultural land in Suffield that they manage as grassland habitat.
“These birds are migratory, they have an aerial view of Connecticut, so when they come back, they look for grasslands,” Zemba said. “They tend to be good colonizers of new grasslands.” But this underscores an important point: the presence of a rare species on a site doesn’t necessarily mean your proposed action can’t happen. With proper planning there are opportunities to minimize or mitigate impacts.
Species protection is important because birds are an important part of the ecological system. “They disperse seeds, hummingbirds pollinate flowers, they eat and consume an untold numbers and amounts of destructive insects,” Zemba said. “Hawks, eagles, and owls consume a large number of rodents that could otherwise be spreading disease and be a nuisance.” And with the coming of spring, the bird watchers will also make their impact. Avid bird watchers spend millions of dollars to travel to see rare birds. And in the coming months there will be lots for them to see.
“Migration is almost constant; people often think that it's just the spring and the fall, but it’s almost continuous,” Zemba said. “The first returning spring migrants are returning now.” The peak migration period extends until after the first full moon in May, when the neo-tropical species return.
“Overnight, if there are clear skies with all the stars out and the next day the woods are alive with birds,” Zemba said.
Zemba shares his bird expertise by offering his services to the Department of Environmental Protection for certain survey initiatives, including CTDEP wetland bird surveys. “The birds tend to be secretive, and thus hard to find, so it takes a certain kind of surveying.”
From wetland surveys to shrubland bird surveys, nocturnal bird surveys and midwinter eagle monitor, Zemba has done them all, bringing that avian expertise to FHI’s environmental service line.