Birders Get a First Look at How 2017 California Wildfires Affected Wildlife
By Matt Blois
A neighbor knocked on Rick Burgess's door at about 9:30 p.m. to tell him a fire was coming towards his home in Ventura, California. When he looked outside he saw a column of smoke, and the hills were already starting to turn orange. He loaded up his truck with a collection of native plants he was using to write a countywide plant guide, and barely had enough time to get out.
"Shortly thereafter the lights went out," he said. "Then the engine came around and on the loud speaker said you must evacuate."
Frank DeMartino—who runs a shop in Ventura that sells bird feeders and birdseed—has organized the last three counts in Ventura. He started the 2017 Christmas Bird Count in Ventura harbor.Matt Blois
Burgess and his wife drove to a friend's house in a different part of town. The first night, they just wanted to know that their home was safe, and thankfully it was. The Thomas Fire burned many of their neighbors' homes that night, but their cul-de-sac was spared. Burgess spent the two weeks following the fire living at a friend's house, organizing the northern sector of Ventura's annual Christmas Bird Count.
The count in Ventura was originally scheduled for Dec. 17, 2017 but the Thomas Fire—now the largest ever recorded in California—burned more than half of the survey area, and organizers had to postpone it until Dec. 30, 2017 because they couldn't get to many of the those areas.
For the first few weeks of December, smoke filled the Ojai Valley where Burgess leads a count, and fire crews had taken over the Lake Casitas Campground where groups normally search for birds by boat. Even weeks after the worst of the fire had passed, the city of Ventura wouldn't let the birders into several parks damaged by the fire. While the fire made it difficult to organize the count, surveying birds immediately after the fire also presented a unique opportunity.
With nearly four decades of Christmas Bird Count data from Ventura, scientists will be able to compare this year's observations with historical data to understand how birds respond to fire. While the fire was devastating for the people who lost their homes, many species of wildlife in Southern California are adapted to live with fire and in some cases take advantage of it. For scientists, it can be difficult to find funding for research immediately following a fire, but citizen scientists like the volunteers at the Christmas Bird Count can fill that gap.
Every year since 1900 bird lovers across the U.S. have ventured out into their communities around Christmas to count birds, reporting their observations to the Audubon Society so that scientists can use the data. Birdwatchers in Ventura started collecting data in 1980.
This year, Frank DeMartino—who has organized the last three counts in Ventura—started at the Ventura harbor. DeMartino runs a shop in Ventura that sells bird feeders and birdseed. About 10 others showed up to help count.
The Thomas Fire was still burning in parts of the Los Padres National Forest on the count day, but near the beach there were few obvious signs of it. Instead of looking for clues about the fire in burn areas, DeMartino looked for birds.
He spotted a small, grey bird flitting through the branches of a tree near a freshwater pond. It had a dark black eyebrow and a yellow stripe on top of its head. Much to his delight, it was a species he had only seen once before, a golden crowned kinglet. "These birds are usually in the mountains," DeMartino said. "You can draw whatever conclusions you like from that."
While it's hard to find a pattern in one unusual bird, DeMartino said it's possible that some of the species that normally live in the hills above Ventura have temporarily moved to the unburned areas in town. He made a special effort this year to get more people to count birds in their backyards because he suspected that's where many displaced birds might have gone.
Mark Mendelsohn, a biologist for Mountains Restoration Trust who works closely with the National Parks Service in Southern California, said birds likely did flee to urban areas or islands of vegetation within the burn. "Obviously, the ones that can will often fly away," he said. "Wildlife—including birds—kind of hunker down or take refuge in those unburned areas." He said fires don't generally kill birds directly because they can usually escape the flames. It's when the birds start returning to burned areas that fires really start to affect them.
Mendelsohn had published a study in the journal Fire Ecology in 2008 showing that changes in vegetation following a fire can affect which species inhabit a burn area. The study found that for several sites near San Diego the diversity of bird species stayed about the same following a large fire, and in one area diversity actually increased. However, the fires did reduce shrub and tree cover in two types of shrub habitat, opening up a landscape that was previously covered with vegetation.
Birds that prefer areas with lots of vegetative cover—such as wrentits and spotted towhees—started to disappear from areas of burned coastal sage scrub. Meanwhile, birds like lazuli buntings, which prefer open areas, started to show up in areas of burned chaparral that normally have lots of vegetative cover.
However, getting this kind of information immediately following a fire can be difficult, Mendelsohn's study, for instance, used bird survey data collected before the fires, but the researchers didn't survey birds again until about 18 months after the fire.
Marti Witter, a fire scientist with the National Parks Service in Southern California, said it's hard for scientists to start a study right after a fire because they can't plan for it ahead of time. When they start a new project, scientists normally need to apply for grants and design experiments. By they time the study starts, much of the interesting data has already come and gone.
"Some of the best studies have data starting a year after, a year and a half after," she said. "People are not going out and doing surveys immediately post fire … You're missing the manpower and research infrastructure to go out and do it in those first few months."
Witter said that's where citizen scientists, like the birders from the Christmas Bird Count, can step in. Citizen scientists don't need to wait for grants, they can start studying the effects of fire as soon as it's safe.
At the end of the Christmas Bird Count in Ventura, all the birders gathered at a church near the edge of the burn area. Everyone brought some food, and there were ice chests with beer and wine. Volunteers sat around folding tables telling war stories while they ate dinner. Eventually, Frank DeMartino called for everyone's attention towards the front of the room. He started reading off the names of all the bird species in the county. Participants shouted out if they had seen the bird that day, and DeMartino checked off the species they found. He tallied 172 species, more than many were expecting given the low turnout after the fire.
In many ways it wasn't that different from any other year. The most notable observation was DeMartino's sighting of the golden crowned kinglet, but in general volunteers found the same species they normally do.
While the Thomas fire destroyed hundreds of homes, and killed a firefighter, most of the birds had apparently kept on living. They flew out of harm's way into unburned patches of forest or into backyards in Ventura County. As the vegetation starts to regenerate, they'll slowly return to the hills they normally inhabit where another group of birders will find them in a future Christmas Bird Count.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.
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Since even moderate-intensity workouts offer a slew of benefits, walking is a good choice for people looking to stay healthy.
How to Rock Your Walk<p>Walking isn't just fun and healthy. It's accessible.</p><p>"Walking is cheap," says Dr. John Paul H. Rue, a sports medicine doctor at <a href="https://mdmercy.com/" target="_blank">Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore</a>. "You can do it anywhere at any time; [it] requires little to no special equipment and has many of the same cardio benefits as running or other more intense workouts."</p><p>Want to up your walking game? Try the tips below.</p>
Use Hand Weights<p>Cardio and strength training can go hand-in-hand when you add weights to your walk.</p><p>A <a href="https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2019/03000/Associations_of_Resistance_Exercise_with.14.aspx" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that weight training is good for your heart, and <a href="https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(17)30167-2/abstract" target="_blank">research</a> shows it reduces the risk of developing a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/nutrition-metabolism-disorders" target="_blank">metabolic disorder</a> by 17 percent. People with metabolic disorders have a higher chance of being diagnosed with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.</p><p>Rue suggests not carrying weights for your entire walk.</p><p>"Hand weights can give you an added level of energy burning, but you have to be careful with these because carrying [them] over a long period of time or while walking could actually lead to some overuse injuries," he says.</p>
Make It a Circuit<p>As another option, consider doing a circuit. First, put a pair of dumbbells on your lawn or somewhere in your home. Walk around the block once, then stop and do some bicep curls and tricep lifts before walking around the block again.</p><p>Rue recommends <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/running-with-weights" target="_blank">avoiding ankle weights</a> during cardio workouts, as they force you to use your quadriceps rather than hamstrings. They can also cause muscle imbalance, according to the <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/wearable-weights-how-they-can-help-or-hurt" target="_blank">Harvard Health Letter</a>.</p>
Find a Fitness Trail<p>Strength training isn't limited to weights. You can get stronger by <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/bodyweight-workout" target="_blank">simply using your body</a>.</p><p>Often found at parks, fitness trails are obstacle courses with equipment for pullups, pushups, rowing, and stretches to build upper and lower body strength.</p><p>Try searching "fitness trails near me" online, checking out your local parks and recreation website, or calling the municipal office to <a href="https://calisthenics-parks.com/" target="_blank">find one</a>.</p>
Recruit a Friend<p>People who workout together stay healthy together.</p><p><a href="https://bmcgeriatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12877-017-0584-3" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that older adults who exercised with a group improved or maintained their functional health and enjoyed their lives more.</p><p>Enlist the help of a walking buddy with a regimen you aspire to have. If you don't know anyone in your area, apps like <a href="https://www.strava.com/" target="_blank">Strava</a> have social networking features so you can get support from fellow exercisers.</p>
Try Meditation<p>According to the <a href="https://www.nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/nhis/2017" target="_blank">2017 National Health Interview Survey</a>, published by the National Institutes of Health, meditation is on the rise, and for good reason.</p><p>Researchers <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29616846/" target="_blank">found</a> that mind-body relaxation practices can regulate inflammation, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/biological-rhythms" target="_blank">circadian rhythms</a>, and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/glucose" target="_blank">glucose</a> metabolism, as well as lower <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/high-blood-pressure-hypertension" target="_blank">blood pressure</a>.</p><p>"Any form of exercise can be turned into a meditation of some type, either by the surroundings you are walking in, like a park or trail, or by blocking out the outside world with music on your headphones," Rue says.</p><p>You can also play a podcast or download an app like <a href="https://www.headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app" target="_blank">Headspace</a> that has a library of guided meditations to practice while you walk.</p>
Do Fartlek Walks<p>Typically used in running, fartlek intervals alternate periods of increased and decreased speed. These are <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-hiit" target="_blank">high-intensity interval training (HIIT)</a> workouts, which allow exercisers to accomplish more in less time.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0154075" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that 10-minute interval training improved <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/metabolic-syndrome" target="_blank">cardiometabolic</a> health, or lowered the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, just as well as working out at a continuous pace for 50 minutes.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111489" target="_blank">Research</a> also shows that HIIT workouts increase muscle <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fast-twitch-muscles" target="_blank">oxidative</a> capacity, or the ability to use oxygen. To do a fartlek walk, try walking at an increased pace for 3 minutes, slow down for 2 minutes, and repeat.</p>
Gradually Increase Pace<p>A faster walking pace is associated with a lower risk of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/copd" target="_blank">chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)</a> and respiratory diseases, according to a <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30303933/" target="_blank">2019 study</a>.</p><p>Still, it's best not to go from a stroll to an Olympic-worthy power walk in a day. Instead, increase your pace gradually to prevent injury.</p><p>"Start by walking at a brisk pace for about 10 minutes per day, 3 to 5 days per week," Rue says. "Once you've done this for a few weeks, increase your time by 5 to 10 minutes per day until you get to 30 minutes."</p>
Add Stairs<p>You've likely heard that taking the stairs instead of an elevator is a way to add more movement into your daily routine. It's also a way to step up your walking. Stair climbing has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211335519301123?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">decrease the risk of mortality</a> and can easily add a bit more challenge to your walk.</p><p>If you don't have stairs in your home, you can often find them outside a local municipal building, train station, or at a high school stadium.</p>
Is Your Walk a True Cardio Workout?<p>Not all walks are equal. A walk that's too leisurely may not provide enough burn to qualify as cardio. To see if you're getting a good workout, try to <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-check-heart-rate" target="_blank">measure your heart rate</a> using a monitor.</p><p>"A target goal for a good walking workout heart rate is about 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate," Rue says, adding that maximum heart rate is <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/fat-burning-heart-rate" target="_blank">typically calculated</a> by 220 beats per minute minus your age.</p><p>You can also monitor how easily you can carry on a conversation while you walk to gauge your heart rate.</p><p>"If you can walk and carry on a normal conversation, that's probably a lower intensity walk," says Rue. "If you are slightly breathless but can still have a conversation, that's probably a moderate workout. If you are out of breath and can't talk normally, that's a vigorous workout."</p>
Takeaway<p>By shaking up your routine, you can add excitement to your workout and reap even more rewards than a basic walk provides. Increasing the pace and intensity of a workout will make it more effective.</p><p>Simply pick your favorite variation to add some spice to your next walk.</p>
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