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News & events

From Chesapeake to Panama: VCU Rice Center researchers expand migratory bird study

February 8, 2013

Where do they go when they leave? Why are there more of them here and less of them there? Does their color indicate anything about their health? How much does their habitat influence their health? How can we increase their diminishing numbers? What can we learn about critical wetland habitat from studying these migratory songbirds?

These questions are part of the current international Prothonotary Warbler project, which builds on a long-term VCU research initiative begun in 1987 studying Prothonotary Warbler (PROW) populations breeding in Chesapeake Bay wetlands. Data generated from the VCU study contributed to the designation of the Lower James River Wetlands Important Bird Area in Virginia in 2005. PROW are neotropical migrant songbirds that spend the non-breeding season in tropical mangroves in Central and South America, including those in Panama.

Funding for the international collaboration has been granted through a VCU Community Engagement Grant; the project is entitled "Team Warbler: From Chesapeake Bay to Panama Bay and Back – Cross Cultural Connections Supporting Sustainable Communities."

For three years now, a broad team of researchers, teachers, students and conservationists both here and in Panama have been involved in the long-term study of these bright yellow fellows. Through the National Audubon Society's International Alliances Program, VCU has teamed up with the Panama Audubon Society (as well as the Richmond Audubon Society, the Virginia IBA program and the William & Mary-VCU Center for Conservation Biology) to study important bird areas both here and in the Panama Bay, which is globally important.

The initiative was intended to help Panamanian collaborators, including the Panama Audubon Society, start a long-term avian monitoring program in Panama's coastal mangrove habitats as well as develop education and outreach programs using migratory birds to link middle school students in Panama and Virginia. Beginning in 2011, the team worked diligently to develop a partnership for the middle school students (locally, from Robious Middle School) that has included field trips, lectures, and building and monitoring warbler nest boxes. They are also developing an avian monitoring program in Panama, which is "coordinated in large part through the training and technical expertise of VCU researchers and students as well as Richmond Audubon partners," according to the Audubon Society.

Starting in 2011, the Virginia team has travelled to Panama yearly to assist in setting up this monitoring program and to work with the middle school students there. (Stay posted for upcoming articles on how the birds are studied, and the students engaged in the project.)

So here's the question some people quietly ask: Why should we study this?

Mangrove swamps are being destroyed through development in Panama, which means that not only is the habitat of these birds threatened, but that of a multitude of other species.

According to the project's initial proposal, "Migratory birds provide a vital link connecting people, cultures, and places. Preservation of critical bird habitats is often important to the environmental, economic, and cultural well-being of nearby communities." Dr. Ed Crawford, a wetlands ecologist and co-principal investigator on Team Warbler explains, "Prothonotary Warblers inhabit coastal wetlands, and wetlands provide a wealth of ecosystem services including filtering surface and ground water, shoreline protection, mitigating flooding, storing carbon, and provide invaluable habitat to plants and animals, many of which are threatened or endangered."

In 2012, Panamanian protections on the mangrove swamps were withdrawn, endangering critical resources, directly and indirectly, to resident birds, including mangrove specialists, migratory songbirds and shorebirds. Mangroves located along the coasts of Central America are considered some of the most threatened habitats globally. In 2009, the Humedal Bahía de Panamá (Panama Bay Wetlands), including extensive mangroves, were designated a National Protected Area. However, a 2012 Panama Supreme Court ruling suspended the protected designation. At the same time, fees for use of mangroves and fines for illegal mangrove clearance have been reduced.

The primary objective of this project is to expand the scope of the avian monitoring and research initiative focused on the threatened mangrove habitats in the Panama Bay watershed. Since the 1970s, greater than 35 percent of the world's mangroves have been lost and continue to decline at a rate of 1–2 percent per year. Globally the region of greatest concern includes the coasts of Central America, where up to 40 percent of mangrove species are considered to be threatened with extinction.

This international project supports clean and sustainable habitat for the Prothonotary Warbler, as well as countless other forms of wildlife, while fostering cross-cultural collaboration, grassroots community engagement and environmental outreach of a global scope. This collaboration between VCU and Audubon Society partners in Panama is facilitating the exchange of skills and resources designed to promote conservation of local landscapes — and the ecological benefits they provide — to both birds and people.

By understanding the value of mangrove swamps to the Prothonotary Warblers as well as the overall environment, a better balance can be achieved between human development and preservation of natural habitat, which is ultimately critical for environmental and human health.

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