By Sam Blair
Sam Blair is a University of Vermont senior studying Natural History, an individually-designed major focused on close observation of the natural world and humans’ varied relationships to it. Sam worked for Audubon Vermont for the past two summers, first as their inaugural Conservation Education Fellow, and then as a Bird-friendly Maple Project intern. This summer he is working with Steve Faccio as a Seasonal Field Biologist for VCE’s Bird-friendly Maple Efficacy Study.
My day starts, as it will every weekday for the month of June, at 3:30 am. Looking out the window, I see the eastern horizon beginning to glow with the palest of greys. Dawn is on its way. When you get up this early, every bit of preparation helps. My bag is already packed with binoculars, bug suit, clipboard, data sheets, and GPS unit. All I need to do is grab some yogurt and granola and head out the door. By 3:50 am, as I walk across the gravel driveway to my car, a lone robin has begun to sing and a line of something like pale pink colors the eastern sky.
I always cherish this brief, peaceful moment at the boundary of night and day. A Buddhist nun once told me that this time, above all others, allows the mind’s calm, clear nature to express itself most distinctly. Thinking of those words, I pause for a moment to breathe the cool night air before opening the car door. Then I break the silence with the sound of the engine starting and separate the darkness with the glow of headlights on pavement. As the 4:00 hour approaches I am on my way to the field, driving east towards the mountains along empty, mist-laden roads: driving, as it were, into the dawn.
This summer, with one semester left until I graduate college, I am working for the Vermont Center for Ecostudies as a seasonal field biologist—a position which I think I could safely describe as a dream job. I am conducting fieldwork for an efficacy study of Audubon Vermont’s Bird-friendly Maple Project (BFM), a market-based conservation program which seeks to support maple syrup producers who make forest management decisions with birds in mind. These decisions really have to do with making forests that are tapped for maple sap as ecologically “whole” as they can be. This may seem like a no-brainer—they’re woods, after all; aren’t they “whole” already? In fact, the maple sugarbush, also known as the sugar woods, the sugar lot, the sugar orchard, and many other names, is a uniquely human creation, the product of a long history of management decisions that have altered what we might conceive of as the “natural state” of the forest.
The BFM project challenges us to consider the sugarbush as a landscape fundamentally shaped by human priorities. It then seeks to re-order those priorities, not through goodwill alone, but by creating an economic incentive for change. In a crowded marketplace, Audubon Vermont offers producers who manage their sugarbushes to the Project’s standards the opportunity to label their syrup as “Bird-friendly.” Hopefully, this recognition process will help producers who are committed to responsible maple sap production stand out; this, in turn, can make management decisions that consider more than just maximizing sap yield more economically viable.
The BFM guidelines focus on two fundamental aspects of forest ecology: tree species diversity and forest structure. A diverse, structurally complex woodland has many types of trees of differing ages, rather than “even-aged” stands of a single crop tree such as sugar maple. Forests with high tree-species diversity are appealing to a wide range of birds and insects, and are also more healthy, robust ecosystems less prone to devastating infestations of insect species like the forest tent caterpillar. Forest structure, on the other hand, means lots of stuff—living trees of all ages and sizes, “standing dead wood” or “snags,” and “coarse and fine woody material,” a fancy term for logs and branches slowly being broken down by insects and fungi on the forest floor, returning vital nutrients to the ecosystem in the process.
All of this, which many sugarmakers might refer to as “mess,” is actually what makes forests healthy and productive over the long term. As Audubon Vermont’s Conservation Biologist Steve Hagenbuch notes, “The future of Vermont’s forest birds and maple sugaring industry are tightly linked.” With upwards of 100,000 acres of maple sap-producing forest in Vermont, and with the production of maple syrup in the state increasing by almost four hundred percent between 2002 and 2017, it is vital that we find ways to integrate the manufacture of non-timber forest products like maple syrup with the continued provision of ecosystem services if we hope to create “working landscapes” that can sustain both human and non-human communities.
That’s where the Vermont Center for Ecostudies comes in. The Bird-friendly Maple Project, which began in 2014, has enrolled more than 30 producers over the past five years, but that’s just a fraction of the possible reach it could achieve. What’s missing is a statistically valid, evidence-based scientific study investigating whether the BFM guidelines have a measurable impact on bird populations. Such a study has the potential to point towards areas where the project could adjust its guidelines to have a greater effect on species richness and abundance. Ultimately, it could help the BFM project move from its current status as a recognition program towards becoming a true certification program like the “Organic” labeling, with the potential for a commensurate increase in prices for producers. VCE’s role in this high-impact conservation strategy is to provide the sound research that will ground and validate BFM guidelines as the project moves forward—which brings me back to the field, and to that long drive into the mountains.
By the time I arrive at the field site, one of seven being studied this summer, it’s light enough to see clearly, and the eastern sky is colored a beautiful golden-orange. A question may be lingering in the reader’s mind—why have I gotten up so early, and driven so far, to take a walk in the woods? The answer has to do with the fact that birds in a closed-canopy forest are hard to see, but easy to hear. Song, in our June forests, is the ubiquitous indicator of breeding birds, and birds sing most in the hours directly after dawn. By 9:00 or so, as the heat of the day sets in, the early morning chorus fades. That means that, if you want to get a scientifically useful inventory of the breeding birds in a given area, the time to do it is in the four hours after dawn. And if you want to get to your first point count location as the sun is rising, you need to get up, say, around 3:30 am.
A point count is a systematic way of inventorying the bird population at a given site. Points are laid out on a grid, each two hundred meters apart from the others in hopes of reducing the chance of double-counting birds. An observer (that’s me, in this case) hikes to each point and writes down the birds they see and hear during a 12-minute period using an interesting data sheet composed of blank circles. Each circle will become a map of the birds present at that point, taking into consideration the number of birds, their species, their approximate distance and direction relative to the observer, and how they were identified (for example, by song, call, or sight). At least 90% of identification is by ear, so in order to do this work effectively you need to be able to listen to a many-layered soundscape and pick out the different strands with care—a skill that is developed through many hours of practice and careful observation.
At today’s point counts, I hear the songs and calls of many interesting birds, from the high-pitched “p-seeeee” of a Broad-winged Hawk to the “zee zee zee zoo zee” of a Black-throated Green Warbler and the sharp “iikkk” of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, reminiscent of a sneaker squeaking on a gym floor. I also have a series of encounters which I can only describe as remarkably beautiful. First, I come face-to-face with a female American Redstart sitting on her nest just feet in front of me. She is so unobtrusive that I only notice her as she flies away. Walking over to the spot from which she flew, I get a glimpse of her tan speckled eggs tucked into a delicately-crafted nest. Just minutes later, lost in my thoughts as I reflect on this encounter, I almost step on a young fawn hidden in the dense underbrush. It’s sleeping peacefully, sometimes twitching its legs as if it’s running in its dreams. I stare in amazement for a few moments, then back away slowly and walk a wide circle around it. I will later learn that very young fawns lie still as a natural defense against predation until they are old enough to stick with their mothers throughout the day.
By the time I reach my last point, it’s 8:30 am and I’ve been up for five hours. My stomach is suggesting that it’s almost lunch time. As I close the last data sheet up in my clipboard I feel a sense of satisfaction and pride. Our study consists of upwards of 160 points, each with its own 12-minute-long point count, and the idea of all those points out there waiting for you can feel overwhelming. But day by day, morning by morning, the list of remaining points grows shorter and the stack of completed data sheets grows taller. As it turns out, there will be many more hours spent translating the data I’ve collected in the field into a form that can be entered into an online spreadsheet, and then, of course, the task of actually entering it with painstaking attention to detail to prevent a single mistake. But as I hike down to my car and my waiting sandwich, these less-enlivening parts of the job are far from my mind. I am just looking forward to my now-customary afternoon nap.
Science, I’m learning, is all about translation. We take the world in all its complexity and its many entanglements, and devise a way to extract the information that can tell us something about a specific part of it—birds, or insects, or quantum particles, whatever the case may be. In this sense, all scientists are linguists, busy trying to make sense out of the unfathomable language of a messy world by simplifying a small component of it. I guess I am happy to be the one who gets to go out into that mess and experience it, though. As the Bird-friendly Maple Project tries to remind sugarmakers, it’s the mess that matters most.