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NOAA Firebird Project

The NOAA Firebird Project is focused on understanding how prescribed fire practices affect populations of black and yellow rails and mottled ducks in high marsh across the U.S. Gulf States, during the breeding and non-breeding seasons.

The Firebird Project brings together a variety of stakeholders to address waterbird conservation along the Gulf Coast.

Field Studies

We are conducting field surveys to determine the distribution and abundance of black and yellow rails and mottled ducks in high marsh across the U.S. Gulf States, during the breeding and non-breeding seasons. Our field studies will take place across five gulf coast states (Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas). During the projects first year teams of researchers across these states will be completing a combination of point counts, line transects, broadcast surveys, and drop-flight surveys to identify effective field methods for detecting black and yellow rails and mottled ducks.

We are focused on understanding how prescribed fire practices affect these bird populations. We are working with a group of land managers and other decision makers to test hypotheses on the effect of fire frequency on bird response, and are developing a plan to manipulate fire frequencies in plots across the 5 state region. We will also be evaluating burn intensity and its effects on macroinvertebrates and habitat structure to potentially identify a mechanism or mechanisms associated with changes in black and yellow rail and mottled duck habitat-use, movement, and nesting success. We will collect vegetation and macroinvertebrate data during both the breeding and non-breeding season at each of our sites to compare changes in composition and community structure over time.

Habitat Mapping

All three of our study species are threatened by the destruction of high marsh habitat, a type of coastal wetland, found along the gulf coast. Coastal wetlands occur at the interface between marine and terrestrial environments, and are being lost through a combination of land development and sea level rise. High marsh is particularly susceptible to displacement because as sea-level rises, low marsh habitat can push high marsh upslope, which might be unviable due to upland habitat management practices. Identifying high marsh habitat is key for protecting coastal species that rely on this habitat for forage, shelter, and nesting, however, its dynamic nature requires that researchers frequently update habitat location information. Historically, fire within high marsh habitat was likely caused by upland lightning strikes, which managers try to imitate with prescribed fire. However, the role fire plays in maintaining high marsh habitat is poorly understood. Our remote sensing team are working to produce two map products. The first is a rapid high marsh habitat assessment for identifying general locations for bird monitoring based on readily available land cover data layers, available from the USGS, USFWS, NOAA, LiDar, and the Florida Cooperative. The second map will build upon the rapid assessment by incorporating machine learning algorithms to distinguish between low and high marsh habitat based on remote-sensing data to produce habitat type maps. We will then validate the habitat type maps during our bird surveys and vegetation assessments at sampling points.

Stable Isotopes

Rails are a cryptic and understudied group of waterbirds. This is especially true for the black rail. There is an urgent need to clarify whether black rails observed during winter along the Gulf Coast consists of solely resident birds or a mixture of migrant and resident birds. Stable isotopes provide a method for addressing this need. During the non-breeding season, we will capture individual black rails, band them, and collect the fifth secondary feather for stable isotope analysis. Stable hydrogen and oxygen isotope ratios have been shown to vary in a predictable fashion across the landscape and an organisms isotope ratios can reflect the local landscapes isotope ratios. We will be able to compare the isotope ratios from collected feathers to potentially determine the extent of migratory conductivity for black rails.

Climatic Analysis

As human development has continued throughout the gulf coast, land managers have altered their use of prescribed burning to avoid the movement of smoke and ash towards highways and developed areas. Where managers used to apply burns prior to cold fronts when marshes were flooded, now they prefer to burn after cold fronts pass. Whether this change in burn application timing affects coastal wetland communities is largely unknown. We will be evaluating the interaction between weather and timing of prescribed burns to determine if there are any consistent weather patterns that can be compared across sites. If there are consistent patterns, we will develop composite weather maps leading up to a successful burn application, which will allow us to evaluate if weather conditions are trending over time. As climate change increases the unpredictability of weather, determining the weather conditions associated with successful prescribed burning applications will be a vital tool for quickly adapting habitat management plans.

Adaptive Management

Climate change and land-use change are a continued threat to many native species. As a result, habitat management plans need to account for potential changes in weather, invasive species spread, and other complex factors that can affect managed species. Adaptive management provides an avenue for the continual evaluation of species management, because it allows land managers and other decision makers to incorporate previous species’ response to adjust management. We have brought together a team comprised of managers, decision-makers, and researchers to assess the role of prescribed burn on coastal bird conservation. Each year, we will meet and discuss the previous years results and compare them to the managers experiences. This allows for open communication between stakeholders and will allow for changes in assessing species responses to fire.

Long-term Plans

The Firebird project will take place over a 5-year period (2020-2024). Towards the end of the project, we will evaluate what we have learned with our adaptive management team and determine uncertainty in habitat or species response still needs to be addressed. We will also develop a prescribed fire manual and prescribed fire workshops for decision-makers and practitioners to help achieve management goals. Finally, we will work with the Gulf Coast Joint Venture (GCJV) to disseminate our results to the wider coastal bird conservation community and increase collaboration.

Measuring ecosystem response to prescribed fire takes years to fully evaluate. We hope to continue this work for an additional 5-years. By expanding the length of our study, we will be able to increase the geographical scope of our study, continue monitoring and better understand the long-term effects of fire on vegetation and bird populations, and most importantly address uncertainty that arises during the evaluation of our research during the adaptive management meetings.

Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas

Datasets and publications

NOAA Firebird Project
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Datasets and publications