Scientists at work: Sloshing through marshes to see how birds survive hurricanes



A clapper rail with a fiddler crab in its bill.
Michael Gray, CC BY-ND

Scott Rush, Mississippi State University and Mark Woodrey, Mississippi State University

When storms like Huricane Zeta menace the Gulf Coast, residents know the drill: Board up windows, clear storm drains, gas up the car and stock up on water, batteries and canned goods.

But how does wildlife ride out a hurricane? Animals that live along coastlines have evolved to deal with a world where conditions can change radically. This year, however, the places they inhabit have borne the brunt of 10 named storms, some just a few weeks apart.

As wildlife ecologists, we are interested in how species respond to stresses in their environment. We are currently studying how marsh birds such as clapper rails (Rallus crepitans) have adapted to tropical storms along the Alabama and Mississippi Gulf coast. Understanding how they do this entails wading into marshes and thinking like a small, secretive bird.

Least bittern in marsh grass
A least bittern, one of the smallest species of heron.
Michael Gray, CC BY-ND

Mucky and full of life

Coastal wetlands are critically important ecosystems. They harbor fish, shellfish and wading birds, filter water as it flows through and buffer coastlines against flooding.

You wouldn’t choose a Gulf Coast salt marsh for a casual stroll. There are sharp-pointed plants, such as black needlerush​, and sucking mud. In summer and early fall the marshes are oppressively hot and humid. Bacteria and fungi in the mud break down dead material, generating sulfurous-smelling gases. But once you get used to the conditions, you realize how productive these places are, with a myriad of organisms moving about.

Marsh birds are adept at hiding in dense grasses, so it’s more common to hear them than to see them. That’s why we use a process known as a callback survey to monitor for them.

First we play a prerecorded set of calls to elicit responses from birds in the marsh. Then we determine where we think the birds are calling from and visually estimate the distance from the observer to that spot, often using tools such as laser range finders. We also note the type of ecosystem where we detect the birds – for example, whether they’re in a tidal marsh with emergent vegetation or out in the open on mud flats.

Adult clapper rail calling.

Through this process we’ve been able to estimate the distributions of several species in tidal marshes, including clapper rails, least bitterns (Ixobrychus exilis) and seaside sparrows (Ammospiza maritima). We’ve also plotted trends in their abundance and identified how their numbers can change with characteristics of the marsh.

We’ve walked hundreds of miles through marshes to locate nests and to record data such as nest height, density of surrounding vegetation and proximity to standing water, which provides increased foraging opportunities for rails. Then we revisit the nests to document whether they produce young that hatch and eventually leave. Success isn’t guaranteed: Predators may eat the eggs, or flooding could wash them out of the nest and kill the developing embryos inside.

Salt marshes shelter many types of plants, birds, animals, fish and shellfish.

Rails in the grass

Our research currently focuses on clapper rails, which look like slender chickens with grayish-brown feathers and short tails. Like many other marsh birds, they have longish legs and toes for walking across soft mud, and long bills for probing the marsh surface in search of food. They are found year-round along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Clapper rails typically live in tidal marshes where there is vegetation to hide in and plenty of fiddler crabs, among their frequent foods. Because they are generally common and rely on coastal marshes, they are a good indicator of the health of these coastal areas.

Scientist in marsh holding live Clapper Rail
Ecologist Scott Rush with clapper rail, Pascagoula River Marshes, Mississippi.
Mark Woodrey, CC BY-ND

Water levels in tidal marshes change daily, and clapper rails have some adaptations that help them thrive there. They often build nests in areas with particularly tall vegetation to hide them from predators. And they can raise the height of the nest bowl to protect it against flooding during extra-high or “king” tides and storms. The embryos inside their eggs can survive even if the eggs are submerged for several hours.

When a tropical storm strikes, many factors – including wind speed, flooding and the storm’s position – influence how severely it will affect marsh birds. Typically birds ride out storms by moving to higher areas of the marsh. However, if a storm generates extensive flooding, birds in affected areas may swim or be blown to other locations. We saw this in early June when Hurricane Cristobal blew hundreds of clapper rails onto beaches in parts of coastal Mississippi.

Clapper rails hiding under a breakwater
Clapper rails on a Mississippi beach after Hurricane Cristobal in June 2020.
Mark Woodrey, CC BY-ND

In coastal areas immediately to the east of the eye of a tropical cyclone we typically see a drop in clapper rail populations in the following spring and summer. This happens because the counterclockwise rotation of the storms results in the highest winds and storm surge to the north and east of the eye of the storm.

But typically there’s a strong bout of breeding and a population rebound within a year or so – evidence that these birds are quick to adapt. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005, however, depending on the type of marsh, it took several years for rail populations to return to their pre-Katrina levels.

Now we’re radio-tagging clapper rails and collecting data that allow us to determine the birds’ life spans. This information helps us estimate when large numbers of birds have died – information that we can correlate with events like coastal hurricanes.

2020 Atlantic hurricane paths
Summary map of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, updated Oct. 27.
Master0Garfield/Wikipedia

Losing parts

Tropical storms have shaped coastal ecosystems since long before recorded history. But over the past 150 years humans have complicated the picture. Coastal development – draining marshes, building roads and reinforcing shorelines – is altering natural places that support marsh birds.

Clapper rails and other species have evolved traits that help them offset population losses due to natural disasters. But they can do so only if the ecosystems where they live keep providing them with food, breeding habitat and protection from predators. Coastal development, in combination with rising sea levels and larger tropical storms, can act like a one-two punch, making it increasingly hard for marshes and the species that live in them to recover.

[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]

Biologist Paul Ehrlich has compared species at risk to rivets on an airplane. You might not need every rivet in place for the airplane to fly, but would you fly it through a cyclone if you knew that 10% of its rivets were missing? What about 20%, or 30%? At some point, Ehrlich asserts, nature could lose so many species that it becomes unable to provide valuable services that humans take for granted.

We see coastal marshes as an airplane that humans are piloting through storms. As species and ecosystem services are pummeled, rivets are failing. No one knows where or how the aircraft will land. But we believe that preserving marshes instead of weakening them can improve the chance of a smooth landing.The Conversation

Scott Rush, Assistant Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management, Mississippi State University and Mark Woodrey, Assistant Research Professor, Mississippi State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Here are 5 practical ways trees can help us survive climate change



Shutterstock

Gregory Moore, University of Melbourne

As the brutal reality of climate change dawned this summer, you may have asked yourself a hard question: am I well-prepared to live in a warmer world?

There are many ways we can ready ourselves for climate change. I’m an urban forestry scientist, and since the 1980s I’ve been preparing students to work with trees as the planet warms.

In Australia, trees and urban ecosystems must be at the heart of our climate change response.

Governments have a big role to play – but here are five actions everyday Australians can take as well.




Read more:
Go native: why we need ‘wildlife allotments’ to bring species back to the ‘burbs


1. Plant trees to cool your home

At the current rate of warming, the number of days above 40℃ in cities including Melbourne and Brisbane, will double by 2050 – even if we manage to limit future temperature rises to 2℃.

Trees can help cool your home. Two medium-sized trees (8-10m tall) to the north or northwest of a house can lower the temperature inside by several degrees, saving you hundreds of dollars in power costs each year.

Trees can cool your home by several degrees.
Shutterstock

Green roofs and walls can reduce urban temperatures, but are costly to install and maintain. Climbing plants, such as vines on a pergola, can provide great shade, too.

Trees also suck up carbon dioxide and extend the life of the paint on your external walls.

2. Keep your street trees alive

Climate change poses a real threat to many street trees. But it’s in everyone’s interests to keep trees on your nature strip alive.

Adequate tree canopy cover is the least costly, most sustainable way of cooling our cities. Trees cool the surrounding air when their leaves transpire and the water evaporates. Shade from trees can also triple the lifespan of bitumen, which can save governments millions each year in road resurfacing.

Tree roots also soak up water after storms, which will become more extreme in a warming climate. In fact, estimates suggest trees can hold up to 40% of the rainwater that hits them.

But tree canopy cover is declining in Australia. In Melbourne, for instance, it falls by 1-1.5% annually, mainly due to tree removals on private land.

Governments are removing trees from public and private land at the time we need them most.
Shutterstock

This shows state laws fail to recognise the value of trees, and we’re losing them when we need them most.

Infrastructure works such as level crossing removals have removed trees in places such as the Gandolfo Gardens in Melbourne’s inner north, despite community and political opposition. Some of these trees were more than a century old.

So what can you do to help? Ask your local council if they keep a register of important trees of your suburb, and whether those trees are protected by local planning schemes. Depending on the council, you can even nominate a tree for protection and significant status.

But once a development has been approved, it’s usually too late to save even special trees.

3. Green our rural areas

Outside cities, we must preserve remnant vegetation and revegetate less productive agricultural land. This will provide shade and moderate increasingly strong winds, caused by climate change.

Planting along creeks can lower water temperatures, which keeps sensitive native fish healthy and reduces riverbank erosion.

Strategically planting windbreaks and preserving roadside vegetation are good ways to improve rural canopy cover. This can also increase farm production, reduce stock losses and prevent erosion.

To help, work with groups like Landcare and Greening Australia to vegetate roadsides and river banks.

4. Make plants part of your bushfire plan

Climate change is bringing earlier fire seasons and more intense, frequent fires. Fires will occur where they hadn’t in the past, such as suburban areas. We saw this in the Melbourne suburbs of Bundoora, Mill Park, Plenty and Greensborough in December last year.

It’s important to have a fire-smart garden. It might seem counter-intuitive to plant trees around the house to fortify your fire defences, but some plants actually help reduce the spread of fire – through their less flammable leaves and summer green foliage – and screen your house from embers.




Read more:
Low flammability plants could help our homes survive bushfires


Depending on where you live, suitable trees to plant include crepe myrtle, the hybrid flame tree, Persian ironwood, some fruit trees and even some native eucalypts.

Gardens play a role in mitigating fire risk to your home.
Shutterstock

If you’re in a bushfire-prone area, landscape your garden by strategically planting trees, making sure their canopies don’t overhang the house. Also ensure shrubs do not grow under trees, as they might feed fire up into the canopy.

And in bad fire conditions, rake your garden to put distance between fuel and your home.




Read more:
Keeping the city cool isn’t just about tree cover – it calls for a commons-based climate response


5. What if my trees fall during storms?

The fear of a whole tree falling over during storms, or shedding large limbs, is understandable. Human injury or death from trees is extremely rare, but tragedies do occur.

Make sure your trees are healthy, and their root systems are not disturbed when utility services such as plumbing, gas supplies and communication cables are installed.

Coping with a warming world

Urban trees are not just ornaments, but vital infrastructure. They make cities liveable and sustainable and they allow citizens to live healthier and longer lives.

For centuries these silent witnesses to urban development have been helping our environment. Urban ecosystems depend on a healthy urban forest for their survival, and so do we.The Conversation

Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Our cities need more trees, but some commonly planted ones won’t survive climate change


Australian cities could lose some of their most common trees to climate change.
Jamen Percy/Shutterstock

Alessandro Ossola, Macquarie University; Hugh Munro Burley, Macquarie University; Leigh Staas, Macquarie University; Linda Beaumont, Macquarie University; Michelle Leishman, Macquarie University, and Rachael Gallagher, Macquarie University

We need trees in our lives. This past summer, Adelaide experienced the hottest temperature ever recorded in an Australian state capital, hitting 46.6 degrees on January 24. Trees beautify otherwise grey cities and cool our suburbs during heatwaves. But different species have different levels of tolerance of heat, lack of water and other threats posed by climate change.

In a newly published study, we investigated likely climate change impacts on 176 of the most common tree species planted across Australian cities. Our analysis showed more than 70% of these species will experience harsher climatic conditions across Australian cities by 2070. Some of the most commonly planted trees are unlikely to survive these conditions.

The golden wattle might struggle in our northern cities if they get hotter and drier.
Dryas/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

So which tree species are best suited to particular places? Which species are more likely to thrive, rather than just survive, under a changing climate? Which of our beloved tree species won’t make it?

Tree species growing in warmer cities are more likely to be affected than those in cooler cities. Some species, such as the golden wattle (Acacia longifolia) or the prickly paperbark (Melaleuca styphelioides), might not make it in northern cities, unless we invest precious resources – such as water – to maintain these civic assets. Other species, such as the native frangipani (Hymenosporum flavum) or the tuckeroo (Cupaniopsis anacardioides), will likely become more suitable for planting in southern cities.




Read more:
We’re investing heavily in urban greening, so how are our cities doing?


Why do cities need trees?

Trees are wonderfully effective at improving the microclimate of our cities, which makes tree plantings an effective and efficient way to adapt to climate change. The leaves of trees absorb and dissipate much of the sun’s radiation.

Trees cool air and land by several degrees compared to areas of concrete and asphalt. Swipe the heat map below to see how effectively trees cool down our cities. (Red indicates hotter areas, blue cooler areas.)

Swipe the map to see how much trees cool urban areas. Red indicates hotter areas, blue cooler areas. This temperature map was collected during a heatwave in Adelaide, South Australia, on February 9 2017 by AdaptWest over the cities of West Torrens, Charles Sturt and Port Adelaide-Enfield.
Used with permission of AdaptWest Adelaide (https://www.adaptwest.com.au/mapping/heat-maps)



Read more:
Building cool cities for a hot future


Governments recognise the importance of trees and have developed vital initiatives, such as the national 20 Million Trees program and the 5 Million Trees program in New South Wales. These are important first steps to increase urban tree cover across Australia. But the question arises: are we planting the right tree species?

What does the science say?

Australian cities are blessed with a higher diversity of tree species compared to other cities globally. However, the 30 most commonly planted species make up more than half of Australia’s urban forests.

This poses a great risk for our cities. If we were to lose one or two of these common species, the impact on our urban tree cover would be immense. Consequently, our best insurance is to increase the diversity of our trees.

Species composition of Australia’s urban forests across 60 local government areas. The size of each word is proportional to the number of tree stems recorded for each species.
Alessandro Ossola

Our quest to find climate-ready tree species is only just beginning. Supported by Hort Innovation Australia, the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, and the Commonwealth government, our team embarked on a project called Which Plant Where in conjunction with researchers at Western Sydney University. Our mission is to find the best plant species for urban landscapes that will be resilient to climate change.

We work with the nursery industry to provide evidence on species’ resilience to extreme heat and drought by testing plants to their limits in research glasshouses. Our work with plant growers and nurseries will inform them on how to adapt their business, by identifying the new challenges posed by climate change, as well as selecting highly diverse palettes of climate-ready species. We advise landscape architects, designers and urban planners about not only the best planting choices, but also how to increase the biodiversity of our cities.




Read more:
For green cities to become mainstream, we need to learn from local success stories and scale up


You can help!

We are committed to do more science in coming years, but you can start making a difference today. Australia’s National Tree Day will be celebrated again this year on Sunday, July 28. It’s a great opportunity to teach our families, communities and businesses about the importance of tree planting and environmental stewardship as key elements of adapting to climate change.

An old Chinese adage says:

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

This weekend is your time. The game is simple – head to your closest plant nursery. Ask your local grower about which tree species are suitable for the local growing conditions and pick one you like. Then, plant a tree in your yard, or join one of the many planting events across Australia.

Teach your kids, family and friends about the difference they can start making today – for their future and our common good – one tree at a time. The Conversation

A plant nursery growing a diverse range of tree species for the upcoming planting season.
Alessandro Ossola

Alessandro Ossola, Research Coordinator Centre for Smart Green Cities, Macquarie University; Hugh Munro Burley, Spatial analyst, Macquarie University; Leigh Staas, Associate Director for Engagement & Research Partnerships | Smart Green Cities, Macquarie University; Linda Beaumont, Senior Lecturer, Macquarie University; Michelle Leishman, Distinguished Professor, Head of Department, Macquarie University, and Rachael Gallagher, , Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How we’re helping the western ground parrot survive climate change



A western ground parrot being released with a GPS tracker fitted.
Alan Danks

Shaun Molloy, Edith Cowan University and Robert Davis, Edith Cowan University

When a threatened species is found only in one small area, conservationists often move some individuals to another suitable habitat. This practice, called “translocation”, makes the whole species less vulnerable to threats.

In the past, this approach has worked really well for some species, but climate change is creating new problems. Will the climate change at that location in the future, and will it remain suitable for the species of interest? On the other hand, some regions might become appropriate for a threatened species.

This fundamental question is important in a rapidly changing climate, yet it has seldom featured when picking new areas for translocations.

Western ground parrots live and nest on the ground, making them very vulnerable to foxes and cats.
Alan Danks/DBCA

Saving the western ground parrot

Our recent research applied climate change modelling to translocation decisions for the critically endangered western ground parrot. This species is now restricted to a single population, with probably fewer than 150 birds, on the south coast of Western Australia.

It is enigmatic, in that it lives and nests entirely on the ground, unlike almost all other parrots except the closely related night parrot. And it is one of the many unique animals that make Australia so distinctive from all other parts of the world. But living on the ground has its drawbacks, as the parrot is very vulnerable to foxes and cats.

Its home near the south coast is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As southwestern Australia becomes warmer and drier, the risk of fire to the parrot increases.

Understanding potential climate change impacts is essential when selecting reintroduction sites. We developed high-precision species distribution models and used these to investigate the effect of climate change on current and historical distributions, and identify locations that will remain, or become, suitable habitat in the future.

Our findings predict that some of the western ground parrot’s former south coast range will become increasingly unsuitable in the future, so reintroductions there may not be a good idea. Four out of 13 potential release sites are likely to become inhospitable to these threatened birds.

On the other hand, many of the former or future sites are likely to become important refuge habitats as the climate continues to warm, and would make an excellent choice for any translocations or reintroductions.

We have given this information to an expert panel, who will use these predictions identify and prioritise areas for management and translocation.

Researchers have radio tracked a small number of birds to learn more about habitat use and movement patterns.
Allan Burbidge

The parrot in the coal mine

Fire is already a significant threat which, combined with predation by feral cats, may have led to the loss of this species from its former home at Fitzgerald River National Park. Many of these threats act together, so they must all be considered and managed alongside climate change.

What’s more, the western ground parrot may be an important indicator for the fate of many other species it currently (or formerly) shares its range with. These include the western whipbird, noisy scrub-bird, and a carnivorous marsupial, the dibbler.

These species are all likely to face the same threats and may be equally affected by the changing climate. Future studies will attempt to model these species and to assess whether all will benefit from similar management.

Many challenges remain for the western ground parrot, including the possible negative genetic impacts of the current small population size, and the increasing risk of damaging fires in a drying and warming climate.

But locating “future-proofed” sites is giving us some hope we can ensure the long term persistence of this enigmatic species, and the myriad other unusual species that occur in the biodiversity hotspot of southwestern Australia.


The authors would like to thank Allan Burbidge and Sarah Comer from the WA Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions for their invaluable help and guidance in putting together this article.The Conversation

Shaun Molloy, Associate research scientist (Ecology), Edith Cowan University and Robert Davis, Senior Lecturer in Vertebrate Biology, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia: Queensland – Hairy-Nosed Wombats


The link below is to an article reporting on how man-made burrows are helping Hairy-Nosed Wombats survive and breed.

For more visit:
http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/journal/designer-burrows-man-made-for-rare-wombat.htm

Antarctica: Emperor Penguins


The link below is to an article that considers Antarctica’s Emperor Penguins and how they survive the extreme cold.

For more visit:
http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/science/2013/03/how-emperor-penguins-survive-antarcticas-subzero-cold/

Coral Reefs in the 21st Century – Can They Survive?


The link below is to the Australian ABC’s Future Forum and its look at the future of coral reefs (the link probably won’t be there for too long) in the face of climate change.

For more visit:
http://www.abc.net.au/news/abcnews24/programs/future-forum/

Malcolm Naden: Barrington Tops Warning for Travellers


Travellers to the Barrington Tops are being warned that outlaw and modern bushranger Malcolm Naden is suspected of hiding out in the remote wilderness area. There is currently a $50 000 reward for information that leads to his capture. He is the most wanted person in New South Wales, suspected of being involved in the disappearance of his cousin Lateesha Nolan and the murder of Kristy Scholes in 2005 at Dubbo.

Naden has sought refuge in the bush in the region bordered by Dubbo in the west and Kempsey in the east since 2005. During this time he has broken into homes, stealing non-perishable food items, camping gear and other equipment required to survive the bushland in which he hides and lives. He is known to be an expert bushman.

Naden first hid in the Western Plains Zoo at Dubbo and has since been known to have been in the vicinity of the Barrington Tops. In 2008 he was known to be in the vicinity of Stewarts Brook, in the western Barrington Tops area. In January 2009 he was known to be at Bellbrook, west of Kempsey. Three months ago he was known to be at Mount Mooney, in the northern Barrington Tops. It is thought that he is also responsible for similar break-ins around the Mount Mooney area in late August 2010. There have been a large number of break-ins across the region this year. He is believed to be armed, with a rifle having been stolen in one of the break-ins. Not all of the break-ins are confirmed as being committed by Malcolm Naden, but they all seem to bear his signature.

According to local newspapers, it is also believed that kangaroo carcasses have been found in the Barrington Tops, butchered in an expert manner. Naden was an abattoir worker and similar carcasses were found at the Dubbo zoo when Naden was hiding there.

The area in which Malcolm Naden is thought to be hiding was once the hideout for the bushranger known as ‘Captain Thunderbolt.’ Naden seems to be following in Thunderbolt’s footsteps in more ways than one.

For more on Malcolm Naden visit:

http://www.police.nsw.gov.au/can_you_help_us/wanted/malcolm_john_naden

http://coastmick21.blogspot.com/

http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/police-seek-man-on-run-after-cousin-found-dead/2005/08/21/1124562750384.html

http://www.australianmissingpersonsregister.com/Naden.htm

http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/news/national/wanted-man-and-a-town-in-fear/2009/01/17/1232213416486.html

http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=4884239637&topic=7725

http://www.theherald.com.au/news/local/news/general/danger-at-the-tops-break-ins-point-to-fugitive/1928579.aspx

http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/publics-help-sought-over-murder-cases-20100904-14v5u.html