Monday, July 1, 2019

Birds and Bees

By Beth Sullivan
People are paying a little more attention to the birds and the bees in recent years. There is a growing awareness of the absolutely critical role they play in so many aspects of our life and economy. Finally even school children are being instructed on the importance of pollinators and are creating gardens and doing citizen science observations of bees and other creatures that are part of this chain of life.
There is greater awareness of the harm pesticides are doing, not just to the harmful insects, but to all insects, including bees. Broad use of herbicides affects not only the targeted invasives, but if used carelessly, they kill beneficial natives and host plants for all species of insects, including our beloved Monarch. Awareness is slowly growing; there are programs and websites and projects dedicated to pollinators, and hopefully more people will understand the connection we all have at the very basic level. It takes a while to make the connection between a pollinator and a hamburger, but these links are being spelled out and kids get it.
A gardener maybe tempted to spray for the aphids, but would also end up harming the monarch caterpillar as well.

The weather

One other factor in this whole process is climate change and the weather. There is an increasing discrepancy and disconnect with the changing seasons. In some places they are warmer too early, and in others remaining cool too long into the spring. It is climate change affecting wildlife and natural cycles. Plants bloom before, or after, their insect pollinators need them. Heavy rains destroy blossoms before pollinators can do their job. Both extreme heat and cold affect bloom time and also health of insect populations. This then affects crop success and fruit and berry production. This will not only affect us, but also the wildlife that depend on these fruits for survival later in the year. Enter the next level of creatures to be affected: the birds.
This has been a very strange spring with so much rain and cooler temps lasting longer through the spring and into summer so far, especially here along the coast. We may not all notice the changes in the bird populations, but as the monitor Mom of a Purple Martin colony, I have witnessed the effects first hand this year. While it is still too early to count my chicks before they hatch, I know we will be far below our other years in terms of success rate. By mid-July, I will have a better idea of our outcomes and will report to all dedicated martin lovers.
Earlier this spring the woods were a banquet of destructive caterpillars for the birds.

One person's weeds may be sustenance for native pollinators. Let them grow.

Kingbirds are flycatchers that rely on insects to satisfy their hungry nestlings.

Tree swallows catch insects on the wing and return to their nests. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Insects are needed too

It is not just the martins though. Think of all the insect-eating birds. Earlier this spring there was a new hatch of leaf-eating caterpillars in swaths of local forestland. These were small and green, not gypsy moths. The migrating warblers settled into the woods and feasted. But after each heavy rainfall, I discovered less activity for a day or so, as possibly the caterpillars were washed off the leaves. During rainy days, flying insects are grounded. Aerial insectivores such as swallows, martins, and flycatchers, were hard pressed to find their flying sustenance. If the adults are weakened, their nest-building efforts will suffer and egg production diminished. As the cold wet weather continues, it has been difficult to find food for those that did have young. I fear nest successes of many birds will be diminished.
Even larger birds, which rely on other food, are having difficulties. Osprey seem to have experienced more nest failures this spring. They catch and eat fish, so that should not actually be affected by weather, but maybe poor visibility at the water’s surface decreased their catch rate. But think of the poor hatchlings left uncovered during these torrential downpours and chillier days, while parents are out trying to find food for them.
The changes in weather patterns affect all levels of life, much like dominoes. Some effects are more visible than others. We can grumble and complain about spoiled plans, but for most of us the weather is not impacting us in an immediate life and death way on a daily basis. Take the time to think through some of the bigger connections and see where they lead. It is sobering.
Osprey eat only fish, but seeing them through rain-disturbed water may be difficult.

Dragonfly eat insects and are also food for Purple Martins.

Your can learn more about birds, insects, and bees at these links:

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

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