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The lives of neotropical migrants
Summer among the sea creatures
Tracking the wild raptors

The lives of neotropical migrants
by Dave Caldwell

Jeremy Lichstein has spent the last three springs in the North Carolina mountain hamlet of Hot Springs, hard by the Tennessee border. Most days, he rises well before dawn, shoulders the morning chill of a mountain spring and ventures into the woods to listen to birds and look for their nests. This is the path to a master’s degree in wildlife biology.

Working under the direction of Dr. Ted Simons, an associate professor in the departments of zoology and forestry and assistant leader of the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Lichstein is collecting data to help wildlife biologists understand how habitat affects songbird populations.

Jeremy LichsteinSimons and Lichstein are interested particularly in what they call neotropical migrants, birds that winter in South and Central America, then return to areas like the North Carolina mountains to nest and raise their young. Most neotropical migrants are songbirds. What Simons and Lichstein learn about the birds and where they live could be crucial information in making wise management decisions about areas like the Pisgah National Forest, where Lichstein has done much of his work.

For the last 15 years or so, there has been concern that populations of neotropical migratory birds are declining, Simons explains. Some species appear to be experiencing marked declines.

Simons and Lichstein hope from their work, which is funded by the U.S. Forest Service, to learn more about the significance of protected areas in maintaining forest bird populations in the southern Appalachian Mountains. The data they are collecting and observations they’re making should provide insights into the conservation needs of neo-tropical migrants, into how forest management affects the quality of habitat the birds need to survive.

Lichstein uses the traditional tools of the wildlife biologist — his eyes and ears and a notebook in which to record what he observes. But he also employs the latest technology in the form of Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, the Geographical Information System and a laser range-finder.

GPS receivers are used initially to locate census points in the forest.

The GPS uses satellites to locate with great precision points on the Earth. Once at a census point, Lichstein walks a transect, a line through the forest, stopping every 10 minutes to listen for birds singing. He records the birds he hears and their location in relation to his, using the laser range-finder to help estimate distance. The range-finder looks like a pair of binoculars, but it registers distance when an observer peers through it.

The observations made by Lichstein and others involved in the project are then entered into a Geographical Information System database. Using the GIS, Lichstein can layer data. He begins, for example, with digital maps of the Pisgah National Forest provided by the Forest Service. On a computer, he then overlays on the maps the approximately 1,200 census points, determined with the aid of GPS receivers, where observers listen for birds. Observation results, including the vegetation at each census point, may also be overlaid.

The result is a database that should provide information about the conservation needs of neotropical migrants.

“The object is to document the abundance of breeding species,” says Simons.

Simons began studying neo-tropical migrants in the southern Appalachians 10 years ago in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“One of the larger objectives is to compare protected habitat with managed forest,” he says. There are substantial portions of old-growth forests in the park, Simons explains, and bird populations in these undisturbed areas may be compared with populations in managed forests such as the Pisgah. Through such comparisons, researchers may begin to better understand the habitat requirements of neotropical migrants.

“It’s not a question of old is good,” Simons said. “We’re trying to maintain a mix [of forest types] that supports bird communities.”

Lichstein is also studying nesting success. He spends a good deal of his time in the forest first locating then following the lives of nesting birds. He and Simons want to know, among other things, what happens to nesting success when the forest is fragmented, or broken up into patches.

“One of our goals is to see if results [of similar studies] from the Midwest are the same as here,” Lichstein says. He explains that forest habitat in the Midwest tends to be fragmented; there are few large forest tracts.

What Simons and Lichstein are learning about the lives of birds in the mountains may be put to use sooner rather than later.

Most of North Carolina’s mountains were heavily logged 80 to 100 years ago, Simons explains. Areas like the Pisgah National Forest have been largely untouched by the saw since then. Many North Carolina mountain forests are, as a result, at a point where logging would be particularly lucrative.

“We’re at a point where management decisions must be made about forest use,” Simons says. “We have the luxury in this part of the country of being able to make intelligent choices about land management.”

The information Lichstein and Simons are gathering should help ensure that those choices are informed ones and that bird song will continue to echo through the North Carolina mountains.

Summer among the sea creatures
by Natalie Hampton

Justine WilsonJustine Wilson is proof that finding great summer internships can be as easy as “point and click.” Last summer, the biology and botany major from Detroit enjoyed internships that had her swimming with dolphins in Florida and assisting in Alaska at a research-and-rescue center for sea life.

Wilson, now a rising senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, found both internships by surfing the Internet. She says the two experiences helped her to better define the kind of career she would like to have.

“I loved working with people, learning about animals and passing that on to people, seeing their eyes light up,” Wilson said.

The first part of the summer, Wilson worked in Key Largo, Fla., at Dolphins Plus, where researchers worked with dolphins and the public came to swim with the animals. Part of Wilson’s job involved working with Island Dolphin Care, a dolphin-assisted therapy program for autistic children.

In the therapy program, autistic children and their parents use interaction with the dolphins to motivate children to develop communication skills. Wilson would take notes on the children’s progress while they swam with the marine mammals, and then she would help plan the next day’s session.

“The children wanted to swim with the dolphins, so they really worked hard,” she said.

In addition, she assisted people who would come to swim with the organization’s untrained dolphins. “It’s really neat to see how the dolphins interact with people,” she said. In off-work hours, Wilson enjoyed exploring the John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park located off the Keys.

However, after a month and a half in the warmth of Florida, she was off to a very different place: the Alaska Sealife Center, a new facility for research and rehabilitation of sea life, located on Alaska’s Resurrection Bay. The new center had not previously developed an intern program but was anxious to utilize the skills of seven or eight college students who had volunteered to work for the summer.

“The center worked with us because internships were something they really wanted to do,” Wilson said.

The Sealife Center was funded through a settlement over the Exxon Valdez oil spill and was home to a number of puffins, murres (a penguin-like bird), sea lions, harbor seals and a variety of sea birds. Injured or abandoned animals that are at the center for rehabilitation are released to the wild whenever possible.

Researchers from a number of institutions apply to conduct research at the center, using the laboratories, wildlife pools and animals that were trained as research subjects. One of the goals of the center is to discover why some species destroyed by the Valdez oil spill in Prince Edward Sound have not returned.

Wilson’s summer job included giving about three talks each day to visitors who came to see the animals at the center, and she worked with an arts program for children who visited the center. She also spent time hiking, boating and viewing the area’s diverse wildlife, including a pod of killer whales.

“It was so different from the contiguous United States,” she said, noting that during the month of July, when Alaska experienced round-the-clock daylight, it was not unusual for the interns to be out fishing at 2 or 3 a.m.

In fact, the Florida and Alaska internships were both very different from anything she had previously encountered. What she has learned from the most recent experiences is that eventually she would like to find a career in life sciences, helping educate people. But not right away.

After she completes her degree next year, Wilson plans to travel, offering diversity training through the international Up With People program. And she would like to go on to graduate school before beginning work. But for now, she is interning with N.C. State’s student development office.

Wilson believes in the power of an internship to shape career directions and scoffs at students who say it’s too much trouble.

“Many students say they don’t have the money to do internships,” she said. “But getting that experience is so awesome. Whatever sacrifices you have to make, it’s so important that you learn about yourself as well as about science.”

Tracking the wild raptors
by Art Latham

Ursula Valdez From above the almost-impenetrable tree canopy where she worked, Ursula Valdez could gaze down at least 100 feet to the jungle floor of Peru’s Manu National Park.

But Valdez, a Peruvian native and a graduate student in the department of zoology, was more interested in the winged creatures flitting around her through the trees.

She and her assistants were doggedly hunting wild birds, but not for trophy reasons. Using taped bird-call playbacks as part of her field work on raptors in southeastern Peru’s Amazon rain forest, she was systematically inventorying birds of prey in the Manu.

“Since there wasn’t much information on raptors in Peru’s Amazon rain forest,” she says, “I decided to conduct a census.”

Valdez was there during the fall of 1997 and fall of 1998 and came back to N.C. State to write her master’s thesis, Raptor Communities in Disturbed and Non-disturbed Areas of Manu Biosphere Reserve in Southeastern Peru.

“I needed to see if some species that live only in pristine forest can adapt in disturbed areas or can survive in a habitat when they are disturbed,” she says.

As it turns out, some species, benefitting >from increased food availability, do thrive in non-pristine environments. “Turkey vultures, two species of kites and black-hawk eagles seem to do well in human-disturbed areas,” Valdez says.

Valdez’s Amazon raptor count was no easy task. The primitive field site is five days by road and boat >from Cuzco, the nearest provisioning area.

“The field station is very rustic, very basic,” Valdez says. “There are no ‘facilities,’ no potable water, but it’s a wonderful area in terms of diversity, with only natural disturbances to the forest.”

Valdez originally came to N.C. State in 1996 to work with Dr. Martha Groom, then an assistant professor of zoology. She had met Groom in 1988 when Groom was studying shore birds along the Manu River.

Completion of her master’s thesis brings Valdez closer to her goal of being a tropical ecologist in Peru. “I’m so proud of my country,” she says. “I’ve convinced at least four people from Raleigh to go there.”

Meanwhile, she’s planning a visit to Gibraltar to study hawk migration and “to see what’s going on in different places with hawk populations.”

And she’s working on a paper on the American kestrel for the Journal of Field Ornithology. The paper is based on her work during a summer at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania.

“I plan to go for my doctorate and eventually want to teach people,” Valdez says. “It’s important to do some teaching, to share what you learn. But it’s also basic to do a lot of field work. I’m a field biologist. That’s what I like.”