Essner, Minchin publish on bird populations, habitats in Sweet William, Bluebell and Bohm

Biology professors Dr. Rick Essner and Dr. Peter Minchin have recently published two articles about their bird survey research that they have conducted in SIUE’s Sweet William Woods, Bluebell Woods and neighboring Bohm Woods Nature Preserve.

Drs. Essner and Minchin observing wildlife with students

Drs. Essner and Minchin observing wildlife with students

The two articles are “A Survey of Bluff Forest Avifauna in Southwestern Illinois” in Transactions of the Illinois State Academy of Science and “Bohm Woods and the SIUE Nature Preserve: Valuable Conservation Assets for Southwestern Illinois” in Meadowlark, a journal published by the Illinois Ornithological Society.

Each article was published to provide a survey of the bird populations, details of the habitats of the forests and an emphasis on the importance of conserving the forests. Essner, Minchin, and their environmental sciences graduate students, Lane Richter and Zachary French, observed 92 different species of birds between 2008 and 2010 in all three forests during their point count surveys.

To complete the surveys, Essner, Minchin and their students had to make careful written observations using binoculars and record birdsongs, which helped them efficiently identify the many species of birds. They were additionally able to use software that helped identify birdsongs by matching recorded songs to already saved songs.

A Ravine in the Bluebell Woods

A Ravine in the Bluebell Woods

Minchin’s knowledge of ecology helped to identify the birds’ habitats in the Woods and determine which woods were better for which bird and why. He and his students even measured the age of the woods by taking samples from trees and through studying old aerial photographs. He and his students found that while most of the Woods are “young,” some of the trees date back to before the Civil War.

With their combined knowledge and skills, Essner and Minchin have been able to produce exceptional data for the articles.

“We’re working together to try and work out what the habitat requirements of different bird species are so that we know how to manage the forests to promote the habitat for those species,” says Minchin.

Essner, who studies ornithology and vertebrate functional and ecological morphology, and Minchin, a plant ecologist with an interest in conservation, have been working together on habitat modeling since 2006, when they first put out nest boxes to study flying squirrels in the Sweet William, Bluebell and Bohm Woods.

Research on the Woods’ bird population began when Essner, noting the endangerment of some bird species in Illinois, wanted to see how often certain types of birds appear in the Sweet William, Bluebell and Bohm Woods.

“There are certain species in Illinois that are a conservation concern, that are threatened or endangered, and they have specific habitat requirements,” says Essner. “One good example is the Cerulean Warbler, which used to be the most common warbler in Illinois, and it’s now the rarest. We’ve seen them in the forests around here, and one of the things that really kicked this [research] off was to try to get a handle on how they’re using this habitat.”

To see how the birds were “using” the habitat, Essner and Minchin observed whether birds were nesting, or living, in the Sweet William, Bluebell and Bohm Woods or whether the birds were simply stopping along their migratory journeys.

Aerial map of Sweet William, Bluebell and Bohm Woods

Aerial map of Sweet William, Bluebell and Bohm Woods

The results of their research showed that species richness was high in all three forests and that Bohm, despite being the smallest of the three forests, is “particularly valuable from a conservation perspective,” as is written in the “Survey of Bluff Forest Avifauna” article, because it alone featured “migratory transients as indicator species,” making it an important “stopover site” for migratory birds.

With the species richness high and some of the birds being threatened or endangered, Essner and Minchin stress the importance of conserving and expanding the forests to keep species coming to either nest or rest. In their work, Essner and Minchin propose that the surrounding lands of the Woods be converted to forests in order to protect the species.

While not everyone has the ability to possess land to convert into forests, many organizations, like the Nature Conservancy, help to promote these habitats and build forests, and Minchin says that it is through the organizations that people can contribute to the woods’ conservation and expansion efforts.

“[A person] can join organizations, and donate to them,” says Minchin. “The Nature Conservancy primarily buys land. They can put it under management for conservation.”

Those who may own land, like farmers, can also do their part by devoting a portion of it to forestry.

“There’s money set aside for farmers to set aside sensitive areas that are next to bottomland hardwood forest and alongside streams to take them out of production and create buffer zones,” says Essner.

Essner, who owns some farmland in Missouri, knows that creating these buffer zones can be challenging, especially with ethanol being in more demand and corn profits rising. However, Essner found the rewards of setting aside a portion of his land when he found out that some bald eagles were nesting in the forest on his land.

Besides the bird and habitat research in the Sweet William, Bluebell and Bohm Woods, Essner and Minchin have other projects they are working on, particularly with their graduate students.

These projects have included studying the effects of fire on prairie and grassland birds at the Riverlands Migratory Birds Sanctuary in West Alton and studying bird populations in forest restoration areas along the Mississippi River, particularly around Chain of Rocks.

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