Some bird enthusiast clubs around the Midwest are calling on their members to put out extra bird feeders this winter, but as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports, the move might not be necessary:
Some bird enthusiast clubs around the Midwest – Great Lakes Region are calling on their
members to put out extra bird feeders this winter. But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Jonathan Ahl reports, the move might not be necessary:
Some of the clubs say birds are still suffering the effects of the West Nile Virus and need extra
food this winter to make sure they are healthy in the Spring. But not all scientists agree with that
claim. Barbara Frase is a biology professor at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. She says
there are only a few circumstances where birds need the extra food humans provide:
“In the winter, if there is a really long cold spell, then the birds are probably helped. The extra
food will help see them through that cold snap. Otherwise, it probably doesn’t add to their
Frase says studies show birds that frequent bird feeders still get eighty percent of their food from
the wild. She says it is still a nice thing to help birds, but says the West Nile Virus is really not a
reason to put out an extra feeder this winter.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jonathan Ahl.
Each fall, thousands of hawks, eagles, and other birds of prey fly hundreds of miles in search of warmer climates. And between August and December, nearly 70-thousand people will climb to the top of a bird sanctuary called Hawk Mountain to get a closer look at those birds. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brad Linder reports:
Each fall, about thousands of hawks, eagles, and other birds of prey fly hundreds of miles
in search of warmer climates. And between August and December, nearly 70-thousand
people will climb to the top of a bird sanctuary called Hawk Mountain to get a closer
look at those birds. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brad Linder reports:
“Those of you haven’t found the osprey, it’s over there at owl’s head, naked eye here to
On a clear day, the view from atop Hawk Mountain stretches for more than fifty miles.
But on this particularly hazy Saturday afternoon, bird-watchers are pushing their
binoculars and telescopes to the limits.
“Well, we’re making them out there, they’re coming in. It’s like you just gotta wait ’til
they get a little closer than what they typically do. They’ve been popping out of clouds
and haze all day for us.”
Doug Wood is a volunteer at Hawk Mountain in Eastern Pennsylvania. This afternoon,
he’s the official bird counter.
“We’re basically taking a lot of field information. Wind, weather, temperature, cloud
cover, wind direction. And then we’re basically monitoring the birds’ species, age, sex,
and recording it every hour.
“Look! An Osprey! And then fade to scene change.”
Researchers at Hawk Mountain have been keeping records of osprey and other migratory
raptors for more than seventy years, making it the oldest monitoring station in the world.
In the early twentieth century, hunters would shoot thousands of birds from the
mountainside each year. Today, people travel from all over the world to shoot birds with
Matt Wong came all the way from New Zealand to study at the sanctuary.
“Hawk Mountain is internationally renowned as a hawk watch site. And also a place
where big research actually happens. Now, not many of the locals around Pennsylvania
actually realize this, but it’s actually huge on the international scene. It’s world
recognized, and that’s one of the reasons why I came here.”
In Wong’s country, there are only two species of raptors. In America, he’s had a chance
to study dozens of varieties.
But even with so many different species populating North America, many people still
think of them as strangers or sometimes even as monsters.
“I still get, amazingly to me, a lot of people that think that these birds are out to get us.”
Volunteer Bob Owens has spent the last 20 years doing education programs at Hawk
“If you intrude into their territory when they have young in the nest, or something like
that, yeah, they’re probably going to chase you. As far as them killing babies and taking
them from baby carriages, this is all old wives tales. This just does not happen.”
Owens runs a small farm for a living, where he says hawks and barn owls help keep
rodents under control. But in a larger sense, Owens says there’s a lot people can learn
from these birds.
“Any three and a half pound bird that can apply four hundred pounds of pressure with its
talons is built to do what they’re doing. They are at the top of the food chain. And that’s
the other big thing that it shows us. It just opens up a door here as to all the reasons the
birds are either dropping or rising in population. What are we doing?”
Owens says in the seventy years researchers at Hawk Mountain have been counting birds,
they’ve seen populations rise and fall. Hawks and eagles are hardy birds. But even the
most successful predators can fall victim to environmental change.
Keith Bildstein is the sanctuary’s director of conservation programs. He says raptors are
like sensitive tools, telling researchers when something’s wrong with an ecosystem.
“Birds of prey are excellent biological indicators. In the middle of the last century they
told us that we were having a problem with our misuse of organochlorine pesticides,
specifically DDT. Today, they’re leading us in explorations of the spread of West Nile
Bildstein says because raptors are at the top of the food chain, when their numbers fall
it’s a pretty good sign that their food source is dwindling, their habitat could be
disappearing, or air quality might be suffering.
But for most of Hawk Mountain’s visitors, the birds are more than barometers of a
healthy ecosystem. According to birder Judy Higgs, they’re beautiful creatures,
especially when viewed from a great height.
“These birds are just majestic. And the other thing is that they go so far. You know,
some of these birds are going to South America!”
Higgs first climbed the mountain in 1970, when she was a student at nearby Kutztown
University. Before moving out of state, Higgs used to come to Hawk Mountain daily…
she stills visits on weekends whenever she can.
“I used to do work in the morning, come here in the afternoon, go home, and finish my
work at night so I could be here.”
By day’s end, Higgs and her fellow birdwatchers count more than 600 raptors. During
the fall season, as many as 70-thousand predatory birds, from vultures to falcons might
pass by on their way to distant points.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Brad Linder.
Researcher Lee Harper bands a common tern. Photo by David Sommerstein.
Biologists like to find these common tern eggs – a sign the bird's population is recovering in the region. Photo by David Sommerstein.
The common tern is a bird best known for its graceful flight and dramatic dives. Over the past 50 years, its best nesting habitat in the Great Lakes has been taken over by more aggressive birds, like gulls, cormorants, and osprey. Today, common terns are a threatened species in New York and Minnesota, and monitored carefully in other states. A couple years ago, a biologist and some volunteers used gravel and navigational buoys on the St. Lawrence River to create artificial nesting habitats for the terns. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports on the experiment’s progress:
The Common Tern is a bird best known for its graceful flight and dramatic dives. Over the
past 50 years, its best nesting habitat in the Great Lakes has been taken over by more
aggressive birds, like gulls, cormorants, and osprey. Today, common terns are a
threatened species in New York and Minnesota, and monitored carefully in other states. A
couple years ago, a biologist and some volunteers used gravel and navigational buoys on
the St. Lawrence River to create artificial nesting habitats for the terns. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports on the experiment’s progress:
The St. Lawrence isn’t just a river – it’s a seaway – an aquatic interstate for ocean freighters rumbling into the Great Lakes. So it’s not strange.
I’m in a boat floating just upstream from one of the river’s highway signs, a seaway
We’re not talking about a plastic buoy – it’s a fixed concrete column rising 8 feet above the
water. Its platform is big enough that you can walk around on it. On top, a tall steel tower holds a red light and signs that serve as channel markers for the seaway traffic. But for the conservationists I’m tagging along with, this is bird habitat. We sit in silence and listen to the call of the Common Tern.
(tern squawking in the clear)
Dozens of small white birds with pointy wings and black caps swoop above our heads.
They soar, suspended, then suddenly dive into the water. Their orange beaks snap at
minnows just below the surface, then they shoot back up into the air.
This particular colony was formerly the largest and most productive Common Tern
colony on the entire lower Great Lakes.
Biologist Lee Harper is known as “the tern guy” in this part of the Great Lakes. He’s
tagged thousands of them and recorded them as far away as Brazil. He documented the
common tern’s dramatic decline over the past twenty years. Gull and osprey populations
exploded, displacing the more sensitive terns from their nesting sites. But today Harper
peers through binoculars and grins.
“The terns we’re seeing here today represent the first nests on this site in almost ten
Terns don’t need much to nest, just a dry, isolated spot near water. Harper noticed the
refugee terns were retreating to navigation markers like this one. They’d lay eggs on its
concrete platform. The problem was the eggs would roll around and the birds would abandon
them. So Harper enlisted volunteers to lug 5 tons of gravel out here. They spread it on the
platform so the terns would lay their eggs on top of the gravel and the eggs wouldn’t roll.
Suzie Wood was among them.
“The first time I saw it, it was a piece of concrete and I frankly thought that Lee was a
little bit cracked when I heard about it.”
That was two summers ago. Today’s the first day the volunteers have returned. They’re
going to count nests and eggs to see how the gravel is working.
(motor sound, then clanking and action sound as we tie up)
We inch the boat up to the marker and huddle under the canvas top in case the birds dive-
bomb our approach. Then we tie up to an iron ladder that leads up to the concrete
platform. One by one, we climb the ladder and peer over the platform’s rim.
“Wow, this is a beautiful nest right here.”
Lee Harper is right behind and he’s beaming.
“After ten years of no terns here, this is really a wonderful sound!”
Almost invisible amongst the gravel and weeds are clusters of brown spotted eggs. We
walk on tip toe, look before every step, careful not to crush a nest. Harper works quickly
to minimize the disturbance. He calls out the number of eggs he sees. A volunteer takes
notes on a clipboard.
Harper was here two weeks ago and counted 18 nests. Today there are 40 common tern
nests. Volunteer David Duff is impressed.
“It was just such a simple thing to do. I mean, a hundred twenty dollars worth of gravel
and a two or three hours and half a dozen people helping with five gallon buckets of gravel
and I think we have a victory, at least a preliminary victory.”
The gravel nests are starting to catch on. The St. Lawrence Seaway Development
Corporation is spreading gravel on navigation markers all along the Seaway. Groups in
Michigan are planning similar restoration efforts, using dredging spoils from the St. Mary’s
River. They’re man-made solutions, but ones that just might restore the Common Tern
population to health in the Great Lakes.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Sommerstein.
Michigan researchers are searching rivers and lakes for evidence
of the native Purple Lilliput (pictured
above). Photo by Doug Sweet.
In recent years, a great deal of attention has been focused on zebra mussels. They’re not native to the Great Lakes region and they’re pushing native mussels out of local lakes and streams. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Celeste Headlee reports, one scientist at a Detroit Aquarium has taken on the daunting task of trying to save a small, rare native mussel from disappearing in the state:
In recent years, a great deal of attention has been focused on
zebra mussels. They’re not native to the Great Lakes region
and they’re pushing native mussels out of local lakes and streams.
As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Celeste
Headlee reports, one scientist at a Detroit Aquarium has taken
on the daunting task of trying to save a small, rare native
mussel from disappearing in the state:
(ambient sound throughout – whenever Doug Sweet talks)
At a small pond near a highway, biologist Doug Sweet and his team put on waders and wet suits
and prepare to enter the sluggish brown water of Dawson’s Millpond Outlet in Pontiac. All
summer long, Sweet has made the trip from the Belle Isle Aquarium to this small pond looking
for a creature called the Purple Lilliput. These mussels, native to the Great Lakes area, have been
struggling to survive in Michigan, especially since the arrival of Zebra Mussels. Sweet’s made it
his mission to find out if there are any of these Lilliputs in Michigan still alive.
“I was very skeptical and didn’t know if we would find any live ones left because previous
surveyors were beginning to predict that they were gone. No one has found them for several
Zebra Mussels have been in the Clinton River for six or seven years. Zebras are very competitive
feeders. They strip the food out of the water before the native species can get it. Their presence
in domestic waters has had a catastrophic effect on many species. In fact, because of Zebra
Mussels and other factors like pollution, almost a third of North America’s freshwater mussels are
considered endangered or threatened with extinction.
Doug Sweet says Dawson’s Millpond Outlet is the last place to find Purple Lilliput mussels in
Michigan, and he’s afraid they will die out here, too.
“Looks like mostly all dead Purple Lilliputs. Yup.”
So far, Sweet and his team have found nine live Lilliputs. And that means there are probably
between 100 and 150 of them in that location. Though no one knows how long Purple Lilliputs
live, Sweet says other kinds of lilliput mussels live only about eight years.
“If the Purple Lilliputs are anything similar to that, then we’re running out of time because the
zebra mussels have been here for about six years now. And if they’re not reproducing, if there’s
too much competition, then we might be seeing the very last of the adult live Purple Lilliputs.”
When Sweet moved to the area, zebra mussels were starting to move into the Great Lakes region.
He’s a fish biologist, but he became so concerned about the plight of native mussels, he decided to
find out how they were faring. He contacted other biologists to ask what studies had been done.
Just a few years earlier, Oakland University Biology Professor Doug Hunter started looking for
the Purple Lilliput mussel in several lakes and streams around southeastern Michigan. During his
first few surveys, Hunter found more than 20 Lilliputs, but eventually he gave up hope and
assumed that the small creature was destined to die out in the state.
“Every year we went back after those first couple of fairly successful years, we got fewer and
fewer. The last time I went out there I think I got one or two. And I thought, “Well, this doesn’t
look good at all.” I wrote a report to the Wildlife Division in which I said, “I think this is an
imperiled population that may be on its way to local extinction.”
Doug Sweet picked up the research where Hunter left off and is now focusing his efforts on
trying to save the Purple Lilliput. Sweet says the number of lakes and streams in Michigan where
Zebra Mussels have taken hold is almost doubling every year. He says people should realize that
what they do with their boats affects an entire ecosystem.
“People are responsible for spreading the Zebra mussels all over the place. Everybody who has
Waverunners, boats, fishermen with bait buckets… they have to be conscientious that if they’re
fishing in one lake, you’ve got to clean your boat well before you transfer it to another lake or
But even so, it may be too late for the Purple Lilliput. Sweet and his team snorkel through the
murky water, use glass bottom buckets, or dig their fingers into the black sediment, looking for
surviving buried mussels. Eventually, though, the hard work does pay off.
“A live one? Ooh, we think we have another live Purple Lilliput…
There we have it, another live one, ten, so this revises our population estimate right there, because
we found this in a quadrat excavation… This is excellent; it’s exciting. You know, who could say
that you’d get excited over a little critter like that.”
Later the same day, the team finds another live Purple Lilliput, a male, bringing the grand total up
to 11. Sweet hopes he can find a safe haven for the Lilliputs somewhere in southeastern
Michigan where the tiny population can slowly begin to recover. Doug Sweet is now finishing up
his fieldwork, and will soon begin studying his results for a report to the state.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Celeste Headlee.
In the wake of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, there’s been a lot of talk about how to balance human needs with the health of the planet. Ecologists have been trying to measure the impact of humans on the environment for a number of years, with some sobering results. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Daniel Grossman went to the New York Botanical Garden recently to gauge mankind’s ecological footprint:
In the wake of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South
Africa, there’s been a lot of talk about how to balance human needs with the health of the
planet. Ecologists have been trying to measure the impact of humans on the environment
for a number of years, with some sobering results. The Great Lake Radio Consortium’s Daniel Grossman went to the New
York Botanical Garden recently to gauge mankind’s ecological footprint.
[Rain forest sounds, misters, tinkling of water, rain falling on leaves]
To get a good sense of the impact humans are having on earth, you could travel for weeks
on intercontinental plane flights, river boats and desert jeeps. Or, as Columbia University
biologist, Stuart Pimm suggested, visit a botanical garden. There, under the glass and
ironwork of a conservatory, Pimm says you can see a resource that humans are
over-using – Earth’s most important resource, its plant-life.
“We’re sitting in the rain forest here at the New York Botanical Society. And it’s a riot of
Professor Pimm says here beneath the misters in the Tropical Rain Forest Gallery is a
good place to start a whirlwind tour of Earth’s greenery. The air is heavy with moisture
“Rain forests are some of the most productive parts of the planet. They grow extremely
quickly and they are therefore generating a lot of biological production.”
What Pimm calls biological production most of us know as plant growth. Biologists say
all this green growth in tropical forests and elsewhere on Earth is the foundation upon
which all life rests.
“Everything in our lives is dependent upon biological productivity – everything that we
eat, everything that our domestic animals eat.”
And everything that every other animal eats as well. In a recent book, Pimm painstakingly
tallies up how much biological productivity we use. He starts with the rain forest. In the
last 50 years, loggers and settlers have cut down 3 million square miles of lush tropical
forests. Much was cut down for subsistence agriculture, a purpose Pimm says it serves
“Although the tropical forest looks rich and productive, it is a very special place. And
when you chop that forest down the areas that replace it often become very, very much
[Sound of walking around conservatory]
Pimm speaks of the toll on greenery of cities and roads and of land converted to farming
in temperate regions such as the U.S. Midwest. Then, trekking along the botanical
garden’s gravel paths, he leaves behind the tropical mists and steps into the dry heat of a
Southwestern desert. Deserts and other dry lands are not very productive, but they
account for a substantial fraction of Earth’s land surface. Most of it is grazed by flocks of
sheep, goats, camels and cattle, often causing severe damage to vegetation. When these
uses are added to the other impacts of humanity on earth’s bounty, the results are
“What silence has shown is that we are taking 2/5ths of the biological production on land,
a third from the oceans. And that of the world’s fresh water supply, we’re taking half.”
[Fade out sound of conservatory. Fade up sound of Texas frogs.]
[Sound of plane engines]
Frogs and toads croak out a spring mating ritual in a concrete drainage ditch. Nearby, a
pilot practices maneuvers in a small plane occasionally drowning out the amphibian
serenade. Living in culverts, sharing the night with droning engines, these wild animals
are never completely free of human influences. From his Stanford University office,
Professor Peter Vitousek says wherever you look, the din of human activities is
interrupting and crowding out other species. Vitousek made one of the first attempts to
tally the impact of people on plant productivity in 1985.
[Frogs fade out in time for Vitousek’s act]
“The message to me was that we are already having a huge impact on all the other species
because of our use of the production of Earth and the land surface of Earth. That’s not
something that our models predict for some time in the future or something that we’re
guessing at on the basis of fairly weak information. It’s something that we’re clearly
doing now. That’s already happening.”
Many ecologists say this conclusion is beyond doubt. What they can’t say is whether
human domination of so much of nature’s output is good or bad. University of Minnesota
Professor David Tilman says as a member of the human race himself, he appreciates the
comforts in clothing, shelter and food our lifestyles buy us. And he acknowledges that the
survival of our own species is probably not imperiled – at least for the moment – by the
destruction of others. Still, he wonders if someday we’ll regret today’s resource intensive
“I think the more relevant question to me is, ‘Are we doing this wisely?’ ‘Are we wisely
appropriating the resources of the world?’ So, my concern is that we live in a balanced
way – a way that is sustainable through generations – that we leave our children and
grandchildren the same kind of world that we have.”
An expert on the impacts of agriculture, Tilman says we’re using up more resources than
can be replaced. He says if we don’t grapple with these important issues now, by the time
the human population reaches eight to ten billion or so people later this century, it might
be too difficult for us to do enough to save the planet’s life as we know it today.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Daniel Grossman.
In field biology courses across the country, students collect samples of
plants, insects and fish. The specimens are then killed, preserved and
studied. But at one university, they’re trying something new: they’re
saving the lives of specimens. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy
Scientists are concerned about a world-wide decline in amphibian
populations. But one scientist has been bringing a frog back to its
native habitat. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports
the Wood frog is once again thriving in an area where it was pushed out
more than 75 years ago: