Wild Ideas: Pollinator, bird count updates

With the warming trend we finally got this week, I was pleased to see insects flying around, including a few early-emerging pollinators. The warm weather isn’t the only good news for our local pollinators; Shenandoah National Park also announced a new research project aimed at our most important ones. The park’s press release about the new pollinator project was one of several emails that caught my attention this past week.

New pollinator project

Pollinators such as this perplexing bumblebee (Bombus perplexus), feeding on a native purple coneflower, will be the focus of a new research project in Shenandoah National Park.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Pollinators such as this perplexing bumblebee (Bombus perplexus), feeding on a native purple coneflower, will be the focus of a new research project in Shenandoah National Park.

The Shenandoah National Park Trust awarded a grant to Dr. Jessica Rykken, an associate with the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, for her project, “Catch the Buzz,” to study diversity, distribution and phenology of pollinators in the park, according to the park press release. The objectives of the project include documenting species, distribution, phenology (annual life-cycle events in organisms) and host-plant associations of bees and syrphid flies in the park. (Syphid flies, also known as hoverflies, are important pollinators that mimic bees.) Among the benefits of the project is development of a set of protocols for extending this work to citizen-science-led monitoring of pollinators in the future.

Pollinators, which are crucial to the food supply of humans as well as other species with which we share the planet, have taken a huge hit in recent years from various stressors, mostly created or exacerbated by human activities. Pollinators are complex species that we’re just beginning to really understand, so anything that will advance our knowledge of them is a good thing.

“The park has very little information about pollinators and their life history requirements,” park superintendent Jim Northup is quoted as saying in the release. “This project provides us with this vital information and the relative importance of each species.” Northrup also notes that Ryyken’s project will enable the park to establish long-term monitoring of pollinators “while creating a new generation of citizen scientists and future stewards of the park.”

According to the park’s website, this project comes out of an annual grant the trust has awarded to the park to support field research in the physical, biological, ecological, social and cultural sciences. The intent of the grant is “to support projects conducted in the park and helping to answer questions important to park resources.” The park, which manages the grant, awards up to $15,000 per project.

New pollinator guide from Cornell

For anyone interested in helping some of our most important pollinators, wasps and bees, while also dealing with problems these important pollinators can present, the Cornell University’s horticulture department has published “Wasp and Bee Management: A Common-Sense Approach.” This spiral-bound, 88-page book has full-color photos and includes detailed identification information for wasp, hornet, yellow jacket and bee species common in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Great Lakes states and adjoining Canadian Provinces, according to Cornell’s Plant and Life Sciences website.

More than 20 wasp and bee species are included, with details about their habitat, appearance, behavior and level of risk to humans. According to the blurb on the website, the guide covers the risk for stings, swarms and property damage, along with nonchemical recommendations “if action is appropriate.” It includes information on integrated pest management (IPM), preventing and treating stings, trap assembly, seasonal management tasks and a list of resources.

During an email exchange, local bee expert Ann Harman said that the guide “gives an excellent introduction to wasps, including the yellowjackets” and shows that the environment needs members of this insect group other than the honeybees that many people are familiar with. “If we understand their lives and habits,” she said, “perhaps we can understand the need for them.”

The book was written by Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, a senior Extension associate with the New York State IPM program at Cornell. For more information or to purchase the book, visit the PALS website call 607-255-7654 (or email nraes@cornell.edu). Rappahannock County Public Library has ordered a copy for its Conservation Collection.

Birding updates

I wrote recently (Feb. 26) about participating in this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), held in February, and also about struggling with hawk identification (March 5). I got a couple of updates on both in my inbox this past week. In a March 3 email, the GBBC, a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada, reported some highlights from this year’s annual count, held in February:

“Tens of thousands” of volunteers from more than 100 countries submitted a record 147,265,000 bird checklists (individual records) and broke the previous count record for the number of species identified. “The 5,090 species reported represents nearly half the possible bird species in the world,” and two species,the Millpo tapaculo and Santa Marta screech-owl, have not yet been described in the official scientific literature. (For more on the count, go to gbbc.birdcount.org.)

No birds at your feeders? Look for a sharp-shinned hawk lurking nearby, hoping to pick off a songbird from that buffet.Bruce Jones
No birds at your feeders? Look for a sharp-shinned hawk lurking nearby, hoping to pick off a songbird from that buffet.

Bruce Jones, whom I mentioned in the hawk column, followed up on our discussion about raptors showing up at feeders by reporting that he came home one day last week to see no birds at his bird feeders. “When I see zero birds at the feeders,” Bruce wrote in his email, “I start looking around.”

What he found was a sharp-shinned hawk “looking for a meal.” This was no surprise to Bruce, since this is the most likely raptor to show up at feeders, which offer a virtual buffet of the small birds it preys on. The sharp-shinned is relatively easy to identify, as Bruce pointed out. The smallest accipiter (a genus of hawk) native to our area, it is also known as a “pinhead” because of its relatively small head compared with other hawks.

Jones Nature Preserve website launches

Speaking of Bruce, he has just launched a website for the Jones Nature Preserve, the 105 acres he and his wife, Susan, own or lease around their home that they have spent more than two decades naturalizing. I haven’t been able to go through all of the wealth of information on the website yet, but from what I’ve seen so far, it does a great job of showcasing the depth and breadth of hard-won knowledge the Joneses have gained from their efforts — and the rewards they’ve reaped in the process.

Many times over the years, the couple has graciously opened up the property to scientists doing research, to master naturalists taking training and to various other groups interested in the amazing collection of native plants and animals there. The object of this sharing and of launching the website is to educate people about the value of naturalizing, Bruce says.

I personally am hugely grateful for the knowledge he’s shared with me in the course of my writing this column. I can also think of few things I enjoy more than having him show me around the place, pointing out the progress he and Susan have made, the occasional failures they’ve learned from and the challenges they face going forward. In viewing the various naturalizing projects on the property — from meadows full of native warm-season grasses and bright wildflowers, to wetlands restored as habitat for amphibians, to the forest in which he’s reintroduced native orchids and other spring ephemerals — I invariably see some species that’s new to me, and add to my knowledge about native habitat.

A trip to the website is almost as valuable, if only to enjoy the many photos of birds and ephemeral spring flowers that are on the property. The photos serve as a nice reminder of what spring has to offer — when it finally gets here.

© 2015 Pam Owen

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 278 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”