This story is the fourth installment of Beyond 350: Confronting Climate Change.
PORTLAND, Maine — Birds are, literally, the "canaries in the coal mine" for the whole planet.
Their populations around the world are in steady and in some cases dramatic decline, and scientists say there is growing evidence that increasing carbon dioxide and other pollution, logging, urban sprawl and climate change are among the reasons why.
Here in Maine the "coal mine" in the spotlight is an extensive network of rural and suburban forest, the largest incubator for breeding birds in the country. But the forest is much younger and less diverse than it once was, and its composition is also changing.
The interest in protecting this critical habitat is why foresters, loggers and landowners are being trained to think like a bird.
Imagine for a moment that you're a wood thrush, a little, potbellied, cinnamon-brown bird with a speckled white breast and a distinctive, flute-like call. You're a bit of a recluse and you prefer a mixed forest with some large trees that provide lots of shade and leaves that fall on the forest floor.
Then imagine you're a logger, aware that the wood thrush population has dropped by half over the last 50 years. You're considering ways to approach your harvest without damaging the habitat of the wood thrush and other species that frequent your woods.
"Think like a bird," says Amanda Mahaffey of the Forest Guild. "Think high, medium, low. Do we have high canopy cover from that overstory, 30 feet and above? Do we have medium or is it low?"
Mahaffey is standing in a woodlot accompanied by half a dozen loggers and foresters not far from the center of Farmington. She's holding up three fingers on both hands, demonstrating what she calls the "quick and dirty habitat assessment," a method of scanning for living and dead things such as hardwoods, softwoods, snags and coarse woody material.
She says the birds, like the wood thrush, are looking at it, too.
"So the birds are thinking about that," Mahaffey says. "They're thinking, 'Do I want to set up shop where there's only a little bit of coarse, woody material in my home?'"
The training is part of a series of workshops offered through the guild, which is an organization that promotes responsible forestry, and Maine Audubon, which promotes wildlife conservation.
"We're really interested in having foresters, landowners and loggers work with us to improve habitat quality for birds," says Sally Stockwell, director of conservation for Maine Audubon and an avid birder. "A lot of our birds are really declining all ready. There are so many threats they are facing. Climate change is a new threat that they're going to be facing which is going to make their future even more challenging and so anything we can do to improve the habitat quality for a lot of these birds is key."
Part of the training is an introduction to bird identification by sight and by call. Maine Audubon has identified 20 conservation priority species, including the wood thrush, scarlet tanager, ovenbird, veery and Canada warbler. These are birds whose global populations rely on good breeding habitat in Maine or whose numbers are in significant decline.
"So, there's a little black bird with a yellow underside that just flew overhead," says Beth Ollivier.
"Oh my goodness!" Sally Stockwell says, interrupting. "I see an American redstart over there. It's not one of our 20 birds. I think that's what you're hearing also — that sort of DOOT DOOT DOOT DOOT. It's a small warbler, black with really bright, bright orange wings. That's probably what you just saw flying by."
Stockwell takes out a tablet and, using an app she has downloaded, plays the call of an American redstart for the group. Identifying by calls, she tells them, is often easier than by sight.
It's also important to understand what kind of habitat individual birds like. In the case of the American redstart, it's open, woody areas dominated by deciduous trees like this forest is.
"I know the trees really well but I need to know the plants and shrubs and birds more," Scott Bubier says.
He is a logger from Farmington who says the workshop has got him wondering about baby birds and logging operations during the spring and early summer when they're just learning to fly.
"I was just wondering how much of an impact a logging operation during nesting season would have on the birds," Bubier says. "It's just one of the things that most folks in the woods really don't think about."
The group heads to a second forest parcel in Farmington managed by a local land trust. This one is a mixed stand with tall softwood trees of different ages, snags and a brushy understory that provides more cover. It's cooler here, quieter and the birds are different.
"We do have black and white warblers and they sound a little bit like a high-pitched squeaky wheel," Stockwell says. "There's another vireo that's calling."
Maine Audubon and the Forest Guild are working on a guidebook to help large and small landowners figure out what birds they have on their property, what kinds of nesting habitat and food they like and what their conservation status is.
The hope is that before they undertake a harvest they'll consult with a forester or a logger who has an appreciation for birds.
"Currently we provide $100 to anybody who finds a new bald eagle nest on our lands," says Henning Stabins, a wildlife biologist with the Plum Creek Timber Co. "We just gave one out last week. Rusty blackbirds. American woodcock, one of the 20 species that is part of this program. We're working with partners to broaden those management plans."
Stabins says this training will help him broaden his focus to manage the 20 conservation priority species.
As the climate warms that management is likely to become more important. Studies by Maine Audubon and the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences suggest that 50 different bird species are likely to see their habitat shift dramatically or even be lost all together.
That is something no one wants to imagine.
Beyond 350: Confronting Climate Change is made possible by a grant from the Doree Taylor Charitable Foundation.