“Resilient ecosystems on land and in the sea provide ‘stepping stones’ where species can find refuge as they shift their geographic distributions due to climate change. … Management and natural-resource policies that protect intact ecosystems are a tool for adaptation.”
– Oregon Climate Assessment Report
By Lee Anna Sherman
ASHLAND, Oregon – As he treads a footpath in the Bear Creek watershed, John Alexander is telling a story about the riparian zone’s recent restoration when he stops abruptly. “There’s a rail!” he whispers, pointing at a clump of cattails. His visitor whirls to see, but the bird has melted into the vegetation. “Just wait,” he says softly. “It’s coming out the other side!” Seconds later, the long-legged bird slips between the tall dry stalks and vanishes once again. “They’re not called ‘secretive marsh birds’ for nothing,” says Alexander, executive director of the Klamath Bird Observatory. “That’s where the expression, ‘skinny as a rail’ comes from. When you look at them head-on, you can hardly see them.”
The Virginia rail is one of the species Alexander and his fellow ornithologists monitor in the Klamath-Siskiyou bioregion, a biodiversity hot spot straddling the Oregon-California border. Spanning 10 million acres, the region is home to more than 400 resident and migratory avian species, 200 of which breed in the area. Some are abundant (song sparrows, Canada geese). Others are rare or threatened (rosy finches, marbled murrelets).
Oregonians across the state use OSU research to prepare for a changing climate.
Whether common or scarce, each is an important indicator of ecosystem health. That’s why Alexander’s organization is committed to “all-bird” conservation, monitoring clusters or “suites” of species whose habitats mix or overlap. Scientists have discovered that a more accurate ecological picture emerges from monitoring suites of “focal species” rather than monitoring individual species.
“Instead of focusing on how one species responds to management, we take a community-composition approach,” explains Alexander, who collaborates with OSU forest ecologist Matt Betts on modeling projects. “If you put all your eggs in one basket, so to speak, you can miss a lot of confounding factors. By looking at five or six associates, you diversify your understanding of what’s happening on the landscape, whether it’s an oak woodland, an old-growth forest or a wetland.”
A birdcall pierces the wintry air. “Is it a hawk?” a visitor asks Alexander.
“It sounds like a red-tail,” he says. “Then again, Steller’s jays can mimic hawks to scare away competitors.” Looking up, he scans the leafless branches. “There it is!” he points. At that moment, a winged form rises effortlessly above the treetops and disappears into the cold blue sky. “Yep, it’s a red-tail.”
This rich riparian habitat at Bear Creek is both a data source for scientists and a living lab for kids. The Klamath Bird Observatory shares space with the Willow Wind Community Learning Center, an old farmhouse that the local school district now runs as an educational facility.
At the top of a narrow staircase plastered with wildlife posters, Alexander and his colleagues labor in a warren of shoebox-sized offices that belie the scope of their work. To the observatory’s vast collection of bird data, the mother of all variables is soon to be added: climate change. As a partner in a mega-study on North Pacific birds, the Klamath group is working with two other conservation groups — PRBO Conservation Science and the American Bird Observatory — to create computer models of species distribution under three climate scenarios: low, medium and high temperatures for the Northwest. Ecologist Sam Veloz of PRBO drew on OCCRI’s 2010 analysis in the lead-up to the study. “I used the Oregon Climate Assessment Report for background while preparing the grant proposal and for identifying data sets to use for our project,” says Veloz.
Landscapes are holistic. They flow across Earth’s surface, one into another, seamlessly. Boundaries of jurisdiction — county, state, nation — are human artifacts, irrelevant to the foraging, nesting and migrating of birds. Overcoming the artificial lines on the regional map is a main mission of the study’s sponsor, the North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative (one of 22 regional public-private cooperatives in the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife). Hosted by the OSU-based Northwest Climate Science Center, the cooperative represents yet another break from tradition in environmental science and management.
By knocking down barriers between the usual silos — government agencies, NGOs, scientists, land managers, tribes, universities — conservation efforts can better address the urgent needs of species and ecosystems. “This partnership is helping to link science and management more tightly,” Alexander says.
The study’s endgame is a tool: an interactive, online program for land managers. It will help them better understand current conditions and also look into possible futures. Alexander calls them “what-if” scenarios.
“It will be a decision-support tool that ties our science directly to their challenges,” says Alexander, who has devoted his career to what he calls the science-management interface. “They will be able to click on any pixel on the regional map and find out the probability that a number of different bird species will be there. It will help them make more informed broad-scale decisions that will benefit birds and people.”
If current predictions are right, bird communities could shift dramatically as temperatures warm. Alexander warns of a potentially massive species re-shuffling that could upset the equilibrium of coexistence. The current project, he hopes, will help mitigate such challenges. “All-bird conservation is something that is going to benefit everybody. Birds are our tool for moving toward healthier landscapes,” says Alexander.