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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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.
We Need More Than Listening<p>By now we have all become sadly accustomed to the current administration sidelining scientists, most prominently Dr. Anthony Fauci, because the facts they provide do not fit with the political rhetoric of the moment.</p><p>I have <a href="https://www.csldf.org/2019/08/22/csldf-helps-climate-scientist-maria-caffrey-fight-for-scientific-integrity/" target="_blank">my own history</a> of filing a scientific integrity complaint with the National Park Service (which falls under the Department of the Interior) after senior ranking employees attempted to censor one of my scientific reports. I know all too well the damage and pain that these actions cause, not just for the individual scientist, but also because these <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/attacks-on-science" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">attacks on science</a> over the last few years have undermined sound, evidence-based decision making.</p><p>President-elect Biden has repeatedly said that he will <a href="https://thehill.com/homenews/521638-trump-biden-will-listen-to-the-scientists-if-elected" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">listen to the scientists</a>. While this is certainly a welcome change, listening can only take us so far. This past week Lauren Kurtz from the <a href="https://www.csldf.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Climate Science Legal Defense Fund</a> and my colleague <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/about/people/gretchen-goldman" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gretchen Goldman</a> published <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ten-steps-that-can-restore-scientific-integrity-in-government/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an article</a> listing 10 actions the new administration should implement to show their commitment to strengthening government science:</p><ol><li>Clearly prohibit political interference and censorship.</li><li>Protect scientists' communication rights.</li><li>Acknowledge that attempts to violate scientific integrity, even if ultimately not fruitful, are still violations.</li><li>Protect federal scientists' right to provide information to Congress and other lawmakers.</li><li>Commit to incorporating the best science as part of agency decisions.</li><li>Elevate agency scientific integrity policies to have the full force of law.</li><li>Publicly release anonymized information about scientific integrity complaints and their resolutions at every agency.</li><li>Institute an intra-agency workforce, potentially under the White House <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/strengthening-science-and-si-at-ostp.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Office of Science and Technology Policy</a>, to coordinate scientific integrity efforts across agencies, foster discussion of policy improvements, and standardize criteria for policies across agencies.</li><li>Strengthen whistleblower protections.</li><li>Ensure that policies cover all actors who will be dealing with science.</li></ol>
Time for Action<p>I have spoken to many scientists, particularly federal scientists, who are eager to turn the page so they can hurry back to the work they had been doing before this administration, but I urge caution in assuming that things can be "normal" again.</p><p>Before Trump, I naively thought the scientific integrity policies established during the <a href="https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/12/19/scientific-integrity-policies-update" target="_blank">Obama administration</a> would be sufficient. I never imagined that any administration could so willfully ignore and attack expert advice and evidence that is intended to protect us and our public lands.</p><p>I have personally witnessed how hard our federal scientists work. They put in long hours with minimal pay (far less that what they could get if they worked in private industry) to pursue one simple goal: to make things better for the nation.</p><p>We need stronger scientific integrity policies to protect these people and their work. But more than that, we need stronger scientific integrity laws because they also benefit society.</p>
By Andrea Germanos
Environmental campaigners stressed the need for the incoming Biden White House to put in place permanent protections for Alaska's Bristol Bay after the Trump administration on Wednesday denied a permit for the proposed Pebble Mine that threatened "lasting harm to this phenomenally productive ecosystem" and death to the area's Indigenous culture.
<div id="da98c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="478a197b7c59c92787c92bec92f1ac39"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1331662923710693376" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Bristol Bay forever, Pebble mine never. #NoPebbleMine #SaveBristolBay https://t.co/CBQ9zuy8A5</div> — Save Bristol Bay (@Save Bristol Bay)<a href="https://twitter.com/SaveBristolBay/statuses/1331662923710693376">1606328156.0</a></blockquote></div>
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