This Week in Stewardship: Nest Box Monitoring and Our Citizen Scientists

If you frequent our Oakland Township parks, you might notice bird nest boxes in a few parks. Several times a week, a group of volunteers monitors these boxes for our Natural Areas Stewardship program using the protocols from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology NestWatch effort. This program’s aim is to study the trends and conditions of the breeding bird populations across the United States. These trends can help show the results of climate change, loss of habitat, and effects of invasive species.

The Nest Watch Program

The NestWatch program is not just confined to organizations like Oakland Township Parks or research groups – it can also be done in your own backyard with little to no equipment necessary! If you simply have the NestWatch app, you can observe nests found in your own backyard. Data from one nest in your backyard might seem insignificant. However if done correctly, consistently, and combined with the many observations of other citizen scientists, your nest data can be of great use. If you would like more information as to how to monitor in your own backyard, click the link below: https://nestwatch.org/about/overview/. Nests can be in nest boxes, like ours, but you can also monitor open cup nests, nests in natural tree cavities, or any other nests you find.

Alex installs a new nest box at Bear Creek Nature Park in 2019. Photo by Ben VanderWeide.

Currently we have boxes in Bear Creek Nature Park, Charles Ilsley Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, and along the Paint Creek Trail. We only install boxes when we know that we’ll have volunteers to check and maintain them. Nest boxes that aren’t maintained can be traps where birds are more easily taken by predators, or they can be breeding sites for invasive birds like House Sparrows and European Starlings. We chose nest box locations after deciding which native birds we wanted our boxes to benefit. For example, an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) requires open space to nest, while a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) prefers woodlots or forests. We are mostly working to benefit Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, so we placed nearly all of our nest boxes in open fields. The boxes are paired up to help bluebirds and swallows fend off nest predators and invasive species.

Paired nest boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park. Photo by Cam Mannino.

During the breeding season volunteers visit the nest boxes about two times per week. At each visit they check to see if a nest box is being used. If in use, they document the bird species, number of eggs, number of young, and other relevant details. The volunteers also maintain the nest boxes during the summer and clean out the boxes in the winter to prepare for new inhabitants the following year.

Donna and Louise – Citizen Scientists at Draper Twin Lake Park

We are only able to perform this monitoring program because of the amazing volunteers, our citizen scientists. We just wanted to give a big thank you to all of our volunteers as they devote several hours, numerous times a week to this project. Without their hard work and dedication to monitoring these boxes, we would not be able to contribute to the NestWatch program.

While all of the volunteers are amazing and we appreciate every last one of them, we wanted to spotlight two particular volunteers, Donna and Louise. They have been monitoring nest boxes at Draper Twin Lake Park since we began the program in 2018. I recently had the opportunity to join Donna on her monitoring trip out to Draper Twin Lake Park. She describes her time nest box monitoring as time well spent. She wants to spend her days doing something of quality and continuing to learn. That drive for more knowledge is what pushed Donna to volunteer with us. One of her favorite moments is when the young leave the nest, as she can now watch them grow and mature into adults. When I asked if she had any tips for people who were considering monitoring nests or setting up boxes of their own, her advice was to be courageous and most importantly be respectful. The data collection is secondary to what is actually happening in the nest.

Another great volunteer I wanted to highlight is Donna’s partner volunteer at Draper Twin Lake Park, Louise. She started monitoring with us because she wanted to help out our stewardship department however she could. Before monitoring with us, she already had two years of experience doing this in her backyard, where she grew particularly attached to barn swallows. Despite the time commitment, she has continued to monitor at Draper because she loves doing it and loves to see the prairie change throughout the season. She takes notes on the different things she sees, and uses the information learned to help restore her own personal property.

One of Louise’s favorite moments, besides working with Donna, happened one day when she was walking with her husband, Jim at Draper. They saw a pair of sandhill cranes with juveniles poking their heads out of the grass in the northeast prairie planting. When I asked Louise if she had any tips for new monitors, she advised people to take full advantage of all of the great resources that Cornell Lab of Ornithology has to offer. She also encouraged folks to talk to other birders, who generously pass along good insights and knowledge. Donna and Louise’s heart for nature, and dedication to observing what is happening in it, makes them the ideal volunteers! We would like to thank them and the rest of our citizen scientists who monitor for us each year!

Nest boxes nestled in prairie. Photo by Cam Mannino.

Want to Help?

If you want to learn more about the NestWatch program, click the link below and click the LEARN tab (https://nestwatch.org/). If you are interested in monitoring with Oakland Township Parks next season, or just want to learn more about our program, please email Grant Vander Laan (gvanderlaan@oaklandtownship.org).

Seed Collecting: Using Nature’s Way of Restocking

In October we’ve been collecting native plant seed in our parks. After all the work of growing, flowering, and making seed, plants have one more task for the year: dispersing the seed. Fluffy seeds ride the wind, buoyant seeds float on water, tasty seeds ride in the guts of animals, and “sticker” seeds cling to animal fur (or your favorite pair of socks!). And a few seeds ride in the paper bags of industrious humans! So it’s all hands on deck to collect seed during harvest time!

Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) just starting to form its seed. This is an example of seeds that are not quite mature enough to collect yet.

We collect native seeds to continue our natural areas restoration work throughout the parks. In 2019 we spread quite a bit of seed at Charles Ilsley Park, Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, and Bear Creek Nature Park in areas where we had removed invasive shrubs. The competition from native plants helps prevent non-native species from coming back. We also spread native plant seed after controlled burns to help increase plant diversity in an area.

We try to remove only about one-third of the available seed for any of our target species. We want to leave enough seed to maintain healthy populations of native plants, while also providing food for birds and other wildlife. If the area is large enough we collect from many different plants to ensure that our seed has lots of genetic diversity.

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We collect seed on a small scale, so we mostly harvest by hand. For some plants we simply snip the dried inflorescence from the plant, collecting the entire seed head. This method works best for species that are very tough and difficult to remove by hand (Black-eyed Susan), and for plants with seed that might shake off easily (asters). We also strip seed from the stem by hand. We use this method for many grasses when the seeds are mature and easy to remove from the stem. We place the collected seed in paper bags so that it can dry without molding or rotting.

Volunteers in various stages of seed cleaning in 2018.

After the seed dries we clean it so that it is easier to mix and spread. We remove the seeds from the seed heads, pods, or other “fruits,” and winnow out any excess plant material. We only need the seed clean enough to combine with other species in seed mixes. We aren’t too worried about some extra leaves, stems, and other chaff.  Our end product is a nice bag of seed packaged in plastic bag to keep extra moisture out.

Alyssa with our stock of native plant seed from 2018.

We are almost finished collecting seed for the season since most of the plants have dispersed their seeds. Keep an eye out for next year’s fall newsletter to see which days we will be collecting seed in 2020. If you are interested in helping us this year, we have a seed cleaning work day on December 3, 2019 from 12:30 – 3:30 pm at Watershed Ridge Park (1720 W. Buell Rd). If you have any questions about this work day or any questions about seed collecting don’t hesitate to ask!