The high-elevation forests of the northeastern United States provide habitat for a unique assemblage of breeding birds, many of which reach the southern limits of their distribution in these montane forests of spruce and fir. Most notably, mountain forests provide habitat for Bicknell’s Thrush (Catharus bicknelli), the region’s only endemic songbird. However, due to the inaccessibility of the high-elevation forests of the Northeast, this assemblage of birds is not included in any of the standardized state or federal bird monitoring schemes (e.g., the Breeding Bird Survey). As such, generating even rudimentary estimates of population trends or population size has proven difficult for species in this habitat, and the development of scientifically-defensible conservation strategies has lagged accordingly. Mountain Birdwatch, a program of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE), was created to fill these information gaps. Mountain Birdwatch was developed to: 1) monitor the distribution and abundance of mountain-breeding birds in northern New England and New York; 2) describe the influence of landscape and habitat features on mountain bird distribution and abundance; and 3) guide stewardship of high-elevation forests.
Mountain Birdwatch began under the auspices of the VCE (at the time part of the Vermont Institute of Natural Science) Forest Bird Monitoring Program. Volunteers surveyed 12 mountains from 1993 to 1999 in order to monitor changes in the status of Bicknell’s Thrush and other high-elevation songbirds. In 2000, VCE biologists launched Mountain Birdwatch as an independent program with fifty additional routes in Vermont and offered observers the option to concentrate on five species: Bicknell’s Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus), Blackpoll Warbler (Dendroica striata), White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis), and Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes). The survey region was expanded in 2001 to include over 100 new routes in New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine.
Data collected under Mountain Birdwatch have been put to a variety of uses: we have assessed the power of Mountain Birdwatch to detect population trends (Lambert et al. 2001); examined the influence of landscape structure on high-elevation bird communities (Lambert et al. 2002); measured habitat characteristics on 45 survey routes (Lambert 2003); quantified short-term population trends (Lambert 2005); produced and validated a Bicknell’s Thrush distribution model (Lambert et al. 2005); and projected effects of climate change on Bicknell’s Thrush distribution (Lambert and McFarland 2004). We have also identified key management units and conservation opportunities for Bicknell’s Thrush (Lambert 2003). Most recently, we have begun to use data from Mountain Birdwatch to develop a tool that can be used to evaluate the likely impact of wind-energy development on mountains and ridgelines throughout the Northeast.
Mountain Birdwatch is also integral to the ongoing efforts of the International Bicknell’s Thrush Conservation Group. Since Mountain Birdwatch is the best source of information about Bicknell’s Thrush, MBW serves as the main tool to evaluate progress towards the group’s goals. In 2009 and early 2010, a Conservation Action Plan was developed for Bicknell’s Thrush, the goals of which were determined based on current population status and trend information for Bicknell’s Thrush across its breeding range.
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