By early April, seniors at The Frederick Gunn School are required to complete what’s known as the Civic Changemakers Project. A diploma requirement, it’s an opportunity for students to work independently on a service project in their local communities, and put into action what they have learned across the school’s four-year citizenship curriculum under the Center for Citizenship and Just Democracy.
Astrid von Seufert ’21 volunteered with the Kent Land Trust, established in 1989 to protect the natural beauty and resources of her hometown of Kent and the surrounding area. According to its website, the land trust’s holdings now include 10 preserves, totaling nearly 1,360 acres, in the foothills of northwest Connecticut, along the Appalachian Trail and the Housatonic River. One of the activities conducted through the land trust’s stewardship program is the documentation of bird species within its holdings.
For her project, von Seufert worked with Laurie Doss, a member of the Kent Land Trust Board of Directors and a federally licensed master bander. As such, Doss safely captures birds in the wild and tags them with a uniquely numbered band or ring before releasing them again. Some birds are recaptured, after being banded in previous years, which helps researchers to determine if they are returning to the same area or habitat over time.
Doss gave to von Seufert the task of entering eight years of historical banding data from Kent Land Trust properties into an online database to permanently document birds that were banded as part of a continent-wide collaborative research effort by the Institute for Bird Populations (IBP) to study avian productivity and survivorship. While bird banding data was submitted to IBP and the federal government, it was never easily accessible to the Kent Land Trust or local community, Doss said.
To remedy that, von Seufert entered the data from Doss into eBird, a free, web-based database where anyone can record or view sightings of birds, and helped to generate species checklists for the Kent Land Trust’s properties. These records can be used by the land trust when applying for grants and to manage properties to ensure avian biodiversity. Scientists from around the world can also use sightings logged into eBird to help with state, national, continental or even global habitat management decisions to aid in conservation issues throughout the annual life cycle (breeding, migration and wintering life cycle) of bird species.
Making an Impact
“Data in eBird is used in modeling by scientists and researchers for grants to study species and where they are found. It’s become a very useful tool,” explained Doss, who handed off to von Seufert pages of data, some of it handwritten, that she and other volunteers collected in the field since they started their banding studies in 2001.
“She would just hand me stacks and stacks at a time,” von Seufert said, noting that the entry for each bird included a four-letter abbreviation for the species, along with the age (determined by its feathers and other characteristics such as mouth or eye color), sex of the bird, and the net location where it was extracted.
“I had to pick the right location or ‘hotspot’ on the map and enter all the birds for that date and other physiological information, so people could see where different birds were found on various land trust properties where there were banding stations.. It was really interesting. I liked to see all the geography and what birds were where,” said von Seufert, who felt she was helping the birding community by being able to identify, for example, if a certain species had not been seen in a specific location for years or was never previously documented on the property. That could indicate a species had moved to a new habitat because the habitat was changing due to succession, or that its population might be declining for various reasons. “I felt good about doing it because I felt I was making an impact.”
“Astrid's project epitomized Frederick Gunn's curiosity and meticulous appreciation for nature,” said Bart McMann, Director of the Center for Citizenship and Just Democracy. “Her work for the Kent Land Trust exemplifies the school's mission to create active citizens who uphold and preserve all that is good and beautiful in our world."
Mr. Gunn’s fondness for nature, and for leading his students on discovery walks through the local woods, is well documented in “The Master of The Gunnery,” a memorial tribute written by his students. “On these tramps those who were fortunate enough to keep close to Mr. Gunn were filled with information about bird and animal, tree and flower. The name and purpose of every natural object, the habits and haunts of every living thing seemed stored away in his mind and always at his command, and he loved especially to help his boys on to something of the same knowledge. A bird’s egg found by some sharp-eyed youngster, and borne up to Mr. Gunn in triumph, would call forth a chapter upon ornithology; and thus we all grew into closer relations with nature and her ways.”
Protecting Birds and Their Habitats
Observations for 119 different species of birds have now been documented in eBird at Kent Land Trust’s Skiff Mountain South Preserve, which is ranked among the top 100 places to bird in Litchfield County based on the number of species found. The 250-acre preserve is also recognized as a State Important Bird Area with wildlife habitat linked to the 7,000-acre Macedonia Forest Block, named “one of the last great places in Connecticut” by The Nature Conservancy.
Hotspots allow the public, and birding enthusiasts, to see on a map which bird species may be in certain areas, and to contribute sightings and photographs of their own, adding to the available data for scientific research. But there’s more to it than that. It’s important for land trusts to know what birds may be found where so they can identify and maintain key breeding habitats, Doss said. Similarly, the land trust can ensure that its properties are managed over time to provide enough resources, such as food, water or shelter, for migratory birds, such as the Connecticut warbler. Despite its name, it is not native to the Nutmeg state, and was last documented at Skiff Mountain Preserve in October 2013, according to eBird data.
“When Astrid approached the land trust, I said this is perfect. If she can put this data in, other people will always be able to go back and see when these birds were last seen,” Doss said. “It’s tremendously helpful for land trusts to document species on their property so they can better manage for them and protect them.”
There has been an overall decline in some avian species and scientists are trying to figure out why, Doss said. Sometimes the problem exists somewhere else, for example, a hazard encountered on a species’ migrational journey, or the destruction of tropical habitat that supports the species during the winter season. Climate change and severe weather events such as the major storms seen in Texas this winter, may also play a role. “There’s so much going on and this is why it’s important to study these birds long term,” Doss said.
Current data will also help with the state’s efforts to protect birds and their habitats through the Connecticut Bird Atlas project, she said. Conservation efforts have contributed to the return of purple martins in Connecticut, and in 2015, the purple martin was “down-listed” from a threatened species to a species of special concern under Connecticut's Endangered Species Act, according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
For her part, von Seufert said the Kent Land Trust project helped her to become more familiar with local bird species. “I got a little more interested with the project because I was seeing all these names,” she said, adding that she has been able to identify some species from her work on eBird. The experience of giving back was also rewarding. “I think it's important that everyone has some experience helping out the broader community.”