By Sean Grace, Audubon Sharon Center Director and Connecticut Team Leader for Eastern Forests
It’s no secret that Connecticut’s forests serve as vital bird and wildlife habitat and play a major role in the health of our environment. When the Connecticut Council on Environmental Quality released its full annual report, Environmental Quality in Connecticut, in June 2017, it was a strong reminder that forest conservation must continue to be a priority.
The report confirmed declines in nesting populations of eight bird species that typically inhabit mature forests in Connecticut, which seems consistent with, and a reflection of, long-term forest and interior core forested area decline in the state. From 1985 to 2015 the total forest area in Connecticut (nearly 2 million acres) shrank by 114,862 acres, while interior core forests shrank by 177,656 acres.
More About the Issue
The good news is Audubon Connecticut has been ramping up and steering forest bird conservation through the Forest for the Birds Program, an initiative supported by various grants including the U.S. Forest Service, since 2014. At the onset of the program, Audubon Connecticut analyzed and focused on interior core forest areas, selected by the amount of intact contiguous woodlands, and noted concerns including forest fragmentation. The long-term prospectus for this critical habitat is that conversion of Connecticut forests will continue as urbanized areas expand and fragmentation accelerates, which will equate to long-term declines in forest bird populations.
While abundant acreage of contiguous forest is very important, a diverse mix of vegetation age is also critical. Many of Connecticut’s core forested areas are even aged and very mature with some of the highest amounts of timber levels standing in our forests in the last 300 years. So why are forest birds declining? The declines in nesting populations of five bird species that typically inhabit young forests, sometimes known as "shrublands,” is a reflection of the limited amounts of young forests in Connecticut. As of 2008, only 2.8% of our forests were in the 0 to 20-year age class, and the state sees an opportunity to increase this habitat type by funding strategic forestry cuts that would help diversify Connecticut forest age classes and, as a result, help restore forest bird populations.
Landowner Education and Outreach
A challenge in managing Connecticut forests for birds is connecting the landowner community. More than 80% of the forests in Connecticut are owned by private landowners and 52% of Connecticut’s total woodlands are owned by private landowners with parcels that are less than 100 acres. It’s not a few large landowners, rather many individuals who own the forests of Connecticut.
Audubon Connecticut understands that educating the general public about how to improve their forest lands for birds and other wildlife is critical to the long-term conservation of interior core forests. Since 2014, in conjunction with partners at Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, and Ferrucci & Wallicki, Audubon has performed 114 forest habitat assessments on more than 26,000 acres to assist and educate forest landowners.
Each assessment averaged more than 35 pages and included property mapping, forest structure measurements, a habitat quality evaluation, a full breeding bird species list, and recommendations to improve the forest areas for birds and other wildlife. An initial survey of participants in the Forest for the Birds Program indicated that 69.5% of those involved implemented some of the recommendations outlined in the habitat assessment that they received—a very real conservation outcome.
Since 2014, Audubon Connecticut has also hosted 11 workshops for landowners and led workshops for foresters or other conservation professionals. On June 22, 2017, Audubon also presented the Forest for the Birds Program work at the University of Connecticut for the Northeastern Area Foresters Association Forest Resource Planning Committee Meeting—a three-day gathering for a host of East Coast professional foresters along the Atlantic Flyway.
Making Large-scale Impacts
As part of the Forest for the Birds work, Audubon Connecticut also assessed 26 land trust properties across the state to educate them about best practices to manage their properties for birds. Land trusts are natural partners with a shared concern and dedication to conservation and as the stewards of large land holdings.
As a large land holder itself, Audubon Connecticut also actively stewards its nature sanctuaries, which total more than 4,600 acres. Beginning in early 2017, Audubon Sharon implemented a 30-acre demonstration forest site to improve the habitat for birds and other wildlife at the Sharon Audubon Center. Both Audubon Center Bent of the River and Audubon Greenwich also manage some of their lands for shrubland nesting birds. All three centers hold property that is part of at least one recognized Important Bird Area. The Audubon Sharon demonstration site includes the creation of shrublands along with six silvicultural treatments to be utilized to educate landowners on how to improve the habitat of the forest lands that they own.
Audubon Connecticut also works to make greater positive impacts for forests and birds as a conservation advocate on numerous statewide and regional issues including open space funding. As a powerful conservation voice, Audubon Connecticut’s active support helped to establish the Conte National Wildlife Refuge (which protects more than 4,000 acres of prime forest habitat in the Connecticut River Watershed) and the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge (which is focused on the expansion of shrublands and young forests across New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine).
Staying the Course
Connecticut is one of many states whose ecosystems and conservation praxis affect bird populations along the Atlantic Flyway—where 70 species of neotropical migrants overwinter in Central and South America and fly long distances to breed in our forested landscape each year. Audubon Connecticut partners with the extended Audubon network along the Atlantic Flyway, from South Carolina right up through Vermont, and shares best practices in bird conservation. This is one of the reasons why Audubon is synonymous with bird conservation.
In 2018, Audubon Connecticut will begin additional habitat assessment work in the Southern New England Heritage Forest as part of a regional conservation partnership proposal, “Accelerating the Pace of Woodlands Conservation in the Southern New England Heritage Forest,” in conjunction with the Last Green Valley, Mass Audubon, Rhode Island Audubon, and 12 partnering organizations in total. Through this and other forest conservation efforts, Audubon Connecticut, state, regional, and national partners must continue to find long-term ways to entice and incentivize conservation-minded landowners to permanently preserve their land holdings to maintain the wonderful environmental character of our state and region.