Trees Can’t Swim

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a place I’ve always associated with vacation cottages and well-to-do New Englanders. Little did I know that this set of islands off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is actually a hotbed for forest researchers, who are studying some interesting phenomena on this idyllic locale.

The breach of North Point Beach on April 20, 2007

The breach of North Point Beach on April 20, 2007. Credit: Bill Brine/Flickr

First, there’s the case of the forest consumed by the sea. Since an April 2007 storm breached Norton Point Beach — the storm cut this barrier beach in half — the ocean has been eating away the beach and land at Wasque Point, aka the southeast corner of Chappaquiddick Island. With the beach now gone, the waves are attacking the bluffs — and the pitch pine forest that grows there. As the bluffs go, so do the pitch pines, tumbling into the ocean currents below. And as Harvard Forest Director David Foster told the Harvard Gazette, pitch pine forests are “very salt tolerant, but they’re not that salt tolerant.”

Foster, a paleoecologist who studies how landscapes change over long periods of time, plans on bringing research fellows and students to Wasque this summer to study how this environment is rapidly changing thanks to one destructive storm and the power of the ocean. As The Trustees of Reservations Director Chris Kennedy, whose conservation group manages the area around Wasque Point, told the Vineyard Gazette, “There’s nothing to block the waves. … They’re crashing right against the cliffs, which are just sand. So we can lose 10 to 15 to 20 feet overnight.” At other points in the area, the surf is adding feet of sand to the beaches and is creating a myriad of sandbars offshore. Kennedy expects that in two to five years that part of Norton Point Beach that is migrating west parallel to the shore will reconnect to the island and hopefully reduce the extreme erosion.

A stretch of Chappaquiddick Island that is being eroded

A stretch of Chappaquiddick Island that is being eroded (pictured in July 2011). Credit: Alexander Cheek (arwcheek)/Flickr

This isn’t the only drastic change to Martha Vineyard’s landscape in the 21st century. In 2007, the island’s Polly Hill Arboretum experienced a massive oak die-off, and according to Foster, this wasn’t the first time that the Vineyard’s oaks died en masse — it had happened 5,000 years earlier. Foster and other researchers had previously studied a massive oak die-off on the island and determined that 5,000 years ago, the oaks succumbed to a warming period in Earth’s history and were replaced by beech trees that flourished for 1,000 years before the oaks were able to reassert themselves. The 2007 die-off, according to Foster, appears to be following that pattern, as insects — which were likely more prevalent due to a warming climate — attacked the trees for three consecutive years before the oaks lost the battle. Now, five years later, history continues to repeat itself as where once oak trees stood, young beech trees are rising in their place.

So, Norton Point Beach will attach itself to Wasque and thus slow the erosion that is decimating the coast, and Martha Vineyard’s birch trees, bushes and shrubs are sprouting up to take the place of the forests that were lost. We get two prime examples of how nature is always changing and always evolving — they just both happen to be on the same tiny set of islands. Astonishing.


Trees Make Urban Communities More Livable

by Amanda Tai

I’ve already talked about the importance of trees in urban areas and the many benefits they provide — like increased opportunities for outdoor recreation, community economic growth and improved air quality. Now, the buzz around urban forests has reached the ears of Congress with the Urban Revitalization and Livable Communities Act, H.R. 709. The bill’s language requires the Department of Housing and Urban Development to establish and administer a grant-giving program for park and recreational projects in urban areas. Many types of projects could be funded by this program, like planting trees in an abandoned lot to turn it into a community green space or engaging inner-city youth in outdoor recreation. The bill would appropriate $445 million per year to the program through fiscal year 2021. This funding would not only create an immediate impact, but would also establish an investment in the future of urban communities and recreation. To be eligible for a grant, applicants would have to submit a five-year plan indicating their commitment to maintain and monitor their project.

Forest Park in Portland, OR. Credit: sha-put-ski/Flickr

This isn’t the first time there has been a bill supporting urban restoration work. In 1978, the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery (UPARR) Act established a program that provided matching grants for restoring distressed urban areas. UPARR hasn’t been funded since 2002, but the facilities and sites it funded are still in use today and remain protected under the act’s provisions.

While urban parks and recreation may exist on Congress’ radar, it’s still only a faint blip. The Urban Revitalization and Livable Communities Act has sat around with no movement for the past two and a half years. First introduced in 2009 by Representative Albio Sires (D-NJ), the bill was referred to committee, but never moved on to a full House vote. In February 2011, Sires reintroduced his bill in a second attempt to build congressional support. Groups like the Urban Parks Coalition and the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition — of which American Forests is a member — are advocating for the passage of this bill, which has currently been sent to House subcommittees to await further action.

We all know it’s tough to get any movement in Congress these days, but urban forest advocates continue working so that they’ll be ready when the ball starts to roll again. Keeping the discussion alive will show Congress that funding for urban parks and forests is a priority issue. After all, many members of Congress live in the D.C. metropolitan area. I imagine they’ve seen and enjoyed the trees and parks near their houses. That brings the issue is a lot closer to home than Congress may realize.


Law in the Amazon

by Alison Share, Environmental Public Policy Associate, Crowell & Moring LLP
Amazon rainforest, near Manaus, Brazil

Amazon rainforest, near Manaus, Brazil. Credit: Neil Palmer/CIAT

Welcome back to the world of environmental law and policy! Most of these posts will address domestic concerns, but today, we begin with one of the largest forests in the world — the Amazon rainforest. In the vein of Harper’s Index, one of my most favorite monthly reads, I bring you a few interesting statistics:

  • Number of acres of forests and grasslands managed by the U.S. Forest Service: 193 million
  • Number of acres of rainforest in the Amazon Basin: approximately 1.4 billion
  • Percentage of the rainforest that is solely within Brazil: 60 percent, or approximately 840 million acres
  • Number of law enforcement personnel employed by the U.S. Forest Service: 737
  • Average number of acres of forest and grassland per agent: 261,872
  • Number of federal environmental enforcement agents in Brazil: 1,300
  • Average number of acres of Brazilian rainforest per agent: 646,153

The U.S. Forest Service also has a stewardship role, in conjunction with state and local authorities, over millions of acres of urban forests. The Forest Service has firefighters and numerous other types of employees; however, the fact remains: In Brazil, enforcement agents have much more territory to cover than their counterparts in the United States. That territory is not grassland or forests with roads and paths and trails. The Amazon rainforest contains one in 10 known species of plants and animals in the world. It is dense and, in large part, unmapped. Both farmers and ranchers own land within the rainforest, and Brazil has passed laws and regulations governing how that private land is cultivated. One of those regulations requires farmers to preserve or replant trees on 80 percent of their land that is located within the Amazon rainforest. Trees and woodlands that border rivers and stand on hilltops and steep inclines are not included in the total amount of required preserved forestland.

Farmland near Manaus, Brazil

A boy walks through his family’s farmland near Manaus, Brazil. Credit: Julio Pantoja/World Bank

On April 25 of this year, the Brazilian Congress passed a new bill that pitted the agricultural lobby against environmental groups, coupled with a large dose of governmental jostling. This bill, which underwent a significant alteration by lawmakers to include more lenient language on behalf of the agriculture lobby, allows previously exempt woodlands to be counted in the total amount of acreage required by law to be preserved. Farmers who had deforested land in order to create arable land for agriculture can now replant less acreage, but still comply with the overall requirement of 80 percent preservation. The new bill also allows farmers to cultivate farmland up to rivers’ edges, should they choose to do so. Previous buffer zones of 30 to 100 yards of forest required between the river and worked land were stripped away by the new bill. Finally, the bill grants an amnesty for fines levied against farms and ranches that had previously cleared more than the legally allowed amount of acreage.

Environmentalists decry the new bill as too lenient in terms of preservation and restoration and call the amnesty a free pass for environmental crimes. The main fear of the bill is that it will result in the replanting of fewer deforested acres than under the old regulations.

In June, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (the Rio+20 Summit) descends upon Brazil to discuss global environmental policy. This new forest bill, watched closely by other developing nations, will surely be a topic of conversation among the attendees, especially considering the summit’s themes of poverty eradication through sustainable development and the creation of an institutional framework for that development. Brazil faces innumerable challenges when it comes to its rainforest. And the trials that the nation must undertake in balancing the various interested factions can serve as an education for us all.


From Sea To Tree

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Manta ray

Giant manta ray Credit: Vlad Karpinsky

You’ve heard me talk a lot about how everything is connected. It’s a theme in the natural world that I find completely fascinating, so you can imagine how much I enjoyed this recent article from Yale Environment 360 about finding a connection between trees and giant manta rays. Yes, I said giant manta rays. These creatures can grow to more than 25 feet across, but even small changes in the ocean food web can significantly impact their populations. So, I bet you’re thinking, “If these creatures are so tied to the deep blue sea, what could they possibly have to do with decidedly land-bound trees?”

U.C. Berkeley marine biologist Douglas McCauley found himself asking a similar question. He and his colleagues were tracking Pacific manta rays around the Palmyra Atoll, a ring of islands halfway between Hawaii and American Samoa that are mostly uninhabited and undeveloped. The majority of the atoll is covered in thick native forests, broken in some places for sections of coconut palms, which are not native to the islands, but were brought there by humans. As McCauley and his team traveled the waters around the atoll, monitoring their mantas, they noticed an odd pattern: No matter which rays they followed, sooner or later, they ended up in water near Palmyra’s native forests. But never near the coconut palms.

To find out why the rays seemed to so strongly prefer the native-forested coastlines, the team tested the waters near both types of vegetation and found a lot more fish in those around the native forests than the palms. It seemed that the marine life really did prefer the waters around the areas of native forest — an ecosystem they couldn’t even touch. The scientists discovered that the reason behind this starts not with a manta ray or even a tree, but with a bird.

Birds on Palmyra Atoll

Birds nest in native trees on Palmyra Atoll Credit: Island Conservation

Many bird species take advantage of the undisturbed habitat on Palmyra Atoll, and migratory species use it as a rest stop in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. For seabirds like the red-footed booby and white tern, there is no lack of fishing in the surrounding waters. These birds have their choice of habitat on the island: coconut palms or the native forest. The majority opt for the native forest because while palm fronds may be pretty, the branches of native trees form a more stable canopy for the birds’ rest and protection. Where more birds rest, there are, understandably, more bird droppings, which contain a lot of nitrogen — a natural fertilizer. During their tests, McCauley’s team found that the soil in the native forests had a nitrogen level five times higher than the palm forests. The trees and plants absorb the nitrogen, which falls back to the ground in the form of leaves and twigs, creating a nice, nitrogen-rich layer on the forest floor. When it rains — and Palmyra gets about 175 inches of rain each year — the nutrients from the soil get washed out into the ocean, feeding all the organisms that live there, including plankton. McCauley’s team found that there were three times as many zooplankton off the coast of the native forests than off the palm-forested coastlines. And what eats plankton? Manta rays.

It all comes full circle. Birds catch and eat fish from the ocean, then rest in the native forests on land. Their droppings fertilize the soil, helping the trees grow and concentrating the nitrogen in the soil, which washes out to sea and feeds everything there, ending up right back in the fish that will be caught by another bird.

While we often realize the connections between flora and fauna in the same ecosystem, or even between land-based ecosystems, it is easy to forget how easily an action onshore can influence something deep in the sea — and vice versa. McCauley’s study is a fantastic example of a connection we rarely make: That marine and terrestrial ecosystems, though sometimes miles apart, are anything but independent.

 


Endangered Flora and Fauna

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Today is Endangered Species Day. Originally, I was going to honor this special day by posting pictures of cute, cuddly, nifty and sadly endangered species — don’t worry, that’s still happening — but alas, environmental news that affects some of our endangered friends has crept into the headlines this week, so I feel like maybe we should talk about that first.

Smithsonian National Zoo Gorillas

Credit: Smithosonian’s National Zoo/Flickr

A new study released by the University of Washington – Seattle reveals that in within 100 years, about 90 percent of mammals will have lost their native habitat range due to climate change. Of these mammals, 10 percent of them won’t be able to move fast enough to keep up with their shifting habitat. According to the study, the most at-risk species are actually primates because of the changing climate and because they won’t be able to get to live-able conditions fast enough. Also of concern are animals in tropical regions, which are more susceptible and sensitive to climate changes. The mammals that are expected to fare better are those that can move greater distances, such as elk, moose and sloths. Scientists hope that this new research will enable them to focus on creating migration corridors for those animals most in need.

Also released this week was the Center for Biological Diversity’s report stating that 90 percent of species that are listed under the Endangered Species Act are recovering at their predicted rate. Yay! According to the report, species on the list are recovering, on average, within 25 years of placement on the list. The downside to this news is the fact that there are more species that should be listed as endangered or threatened than there are funds to protect them. For instance, last summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declared that listing the whitebark pine was warranted, but precluded — meaning that the species should be on the endangered list, but can’t be because of lack of funding. This is why American Forests supports more funding for the FWS budget for endangered species during the appropriations process.

And just what kind of animals and plants is the Endangered Species Act protecting and revitalizing? Let’s take a look.

Polar bears have been listed as threatened since 2008

Polar bears have been listed as threatened since 2008. Credit: USGS

Florida scrub-jay

Florida scrub-jay has been listed as threatened since 1987. Credit: Matthew Paulson (Photomatt28)/Flickr

Green pitcher-plant

Green pitcher-plant has been listed as endangered since 1979. Credit: James Henderson/Golden Delight Honey/Bugwood.org

Florida torreya, aka Florida nutmeg

Florida torreya, aka Florida nutmeg, has been listed as endangered since 1984.

Wyoming toad

At its full size, the Wyoming toad is only two inches long and has been listed as endangered since 1984. Credit: Mike D. (wuperruper)/Flickr

Karner blue butterfly

Karner blue butterfly has been listed as endangered since 1992. Credit: Catherine Herms/The Ohio State University/Bugwood.org


A History of Fire

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Thanks to a particularly dry April, Arizona is kicking off the 2012 fire season with several intense fires. In the Mazatzal Wilderness, which spans Tonto and Coconino National Forests, more than 4,600 acres are currently ablaze, and an impressive cadre of 200 firefighters and 11 aircraft are working to contain it. Other fires bring the state’s total to four major blazes, with roughly 12,000 acres aflame and some evacuations already taking place — something that doesn’t usually happen until later in the season, when the major fires are expected. And Arizona isn’t the only one; Colorado is on fire as well. At about 640 acres, the fire is significantly smaller than Arizona’s but is causing a good deal of anxiety as it bears down on the town of Fort Collins, home to a population of more than 140,000.

Forest Fire Credit: USDA Forest Service

To most of us, news of wildfires across the southwest U.S. is upsetting, but hardly unexpected. After all, we’ve been hearing similar news every summer for decades. Even the oldest person probably can’t remember a time when major wildfires in that region were very unusual. But a recent study on the topic shows that what we consider routine is actually a reflection of modern times — and not in a good way.

A team of researchers from Southern Methodist University (SMU) has used data from decades of tree-ring analyses to delve into the region’s ancient fire and climate history. Tree rings keep a record of major events like fires or volcanic eruptions, as well as climatic patterns, so studying them can tell scientists a great deal about times long gone by (check out the American Forests magazine article for more on tree rings). This particular study was the first of its kind, as it combined fire-scar records with tree-ring data from Ponderosa pines across the Southwest and used a statistical model to predict the fire history back as far as 1,500 years ago.

The team found that throughout history, as the climate changed, the weather patterns that bring about fires — dry, hot, often windy weather — remained consistent, arriving at the same intervals and staying for the same amount of time, which meant a fire season of average intensity and duration. Today, however, weather patterns change more frequently, with more frequent droughts and heat waves than in the past. In fact, according to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, we could be experiencing the warmest year on record, with March 2012 the warmest ever recorded and April following close behind with its third-warmest average national temp. The SMU study suggests that the “megafires” we regard as commonplace throughout the Southwest are anything but. Instead, they’re likely a result of unusually warm, dry conditions that we are experiencing because of climate change and human activity, especially fire suppression. Instead of the more frequent but less intense fires that burn away understory but leave healthy trees standing, we have today’s frightening infernos, which cause a lot more damage.


Help America’s Endangered Waterways

by Amanda Tai
The Potomac River. Credit: krossbow/Flickr

Yesterday, American Rivers released their 2012 list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers. Topping the nonprofit’s annual list is none other than the Potomac River, also known as “the nation’s river” and not far from our headquarters here in Washington, D.C. Nearly five million people rely on it for clean drinking water. The main reason the Potomac is considered the most endangered has to do with urban development and pollution in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Although the river is in much better shape than it was 40 years ago when the Clean Water Act was introduced, high levels of agricultural and urban pollution still remain a threat to fish, wildlife and human health. And it’s not just American Rivers that noticed this trend. The Potomac River also received a D letter grade from the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Sciences for the second year in a row.

The health of the Potomac is closely related to the health of surrounding green areas and wildlife that rely on the river’s water. Trees and plants play a significant role in mitigating river pollution. They serve as a natural filtration system to clean groundwater from pollution that might otherwise enter a river system.

But there’s also a big policy concern attached to this issue. House Republicans have recently proposed to strike several provisions from the Clean Water Act that help clean up and protect places like the Potomac River headwaters. So far, none of the proposals have been approved, but advocates remain wary of this Congressional attack on the Clean Water Act. One example is the Preserve the Waters of the United States Act (S. 2245 and H.R. 4965), which would weaken the Clean Water Act  by preventing the EPA from using its jurisdiction to protect private waters. It’s clear from this proposed measure that Republicans remain concerned about the administration’s reach and jurisdiction, but if this measure passes, many endangered rivers would remain vulnerable to pollution.

If you’re concerned about this issue and want to get more involved, please visit American Rivers’ website where you can learn more about endangered rivers and urge Congress to save the Clean Water Act.


Batty for Urban Wildlife

by Melinda Housholder, Urban Forests Program Director

Every year from mid-March to early November, up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats hang out and make roost under the Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin, Texas. As the largest urban bat colony in North America, these bats have created a very unique tourist attraction in the city, as more than 100,000 visitors come each year to check them out, generating millions of dollars in tourism revenue annually. Not to mention that these bats will eat 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of insects each night during their flights around the city. Thank goodness for bats!

As many of us have likely witnessed, urban environments can offer an array of habitats for exciting wildlife. Growing up, my family saw gorgeous red-tailed hawks looming around our neighborhood, red foxes that would scurry across the streets and coyotes that would sometimes briefly appear in backyards. Living in the D.C. area now, I appreciate that I can visit one of our local urban parks and see a slightly different variety of wildlife.

Urban forests provide critical habitat to wildlife in cities, especially those reliant on corridors for their species’ survival. Corridors are areas that wildlife, such as migratory birds and mammals, use to move from one location to another. They can come in the form of natural urban rivers or streams or in the form of man-made right-of-ways and greenways that connect nature preserves and parks. And, as a 2010 study shows, even small patches of urban forests are often key for migrating birds, such as the Swainson’s thrush, a species that is declining throughout much of its range.

Black-crowned night heron

Black-crowned night heron. Credit: Rennett Stowe/Flickr

Other studies further confirm urban forests as crucial habitat for birds. For example, Baltimore, Maryland, houses a least a third of the bird species that inhabit the entire region, including black-crowned night herons, indigo buntings, scarlet tanagers, white breasted nuthatches and a variety of warblers. In urban areas in Minnesota, approximately 35 bird species nest in or are permanent residents of urban forests, three of which are species of state conservation concern: the northern flicker, chimney swift and brown thrasher.

Just as we manage for our urban forests, we must also manage for the wildlife in those forests. And, different wildlife species require different types of habitats. That is why it is important for urban forests to contain multiple layers of vegetation, including ground cover, understory and canopy, and a variety of tree species. Some species can be selected to encourage specific types of wildlife, such as species with different flowering and fruiting seasons.

Although wildlife can create unique challenges in urban environment (stay tuned for a future blog post), the value of urban wildlife cannot be understated. Not only does urban wildlife provide enjoyment for people and direct economic benefits to cities (think of the bat tourism in Austin), but according to the National Wildlife Federation article “Wild Life in the Concrete Jungle,” national polls have shown that 40 percent of U.S. households do something to attract wildlife to their homes, from installing birdfeeders or ponds to planting certain shrubs and flowers. And, according to the same article, William Shaw, chair of the wildlife fisheries science department at the University of Arizona, says that “promoting urban wildlife is not purely a matter of providing entertainment for people. It is a crucial component for maintaining biodiversity.” Whether we are talking about birds, coyotes, squirrels, insects or bats, urban wildlife is key in helping to maintain stable healthy ecosystems.


The Corps of Discovery

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

“Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia” by Charles Marion Russell

“Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia” by Charles Marion Russell

History books are filled with extraordinary events, fascinating people and unbelievable moments of discovery. Sometimes, all of these things come together, as is the case with one of my favorite moments in history: the westward adventure of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery into uncharted territories and their remarkable return — a journey that began 208 years ago today.

There are many mind-blowing aspects of Lewis and Clark’s famous voyage:

  • The length — 3,700 miles, much of it unmapped, that was navigated solely with the few available maps, a compass and the help of Mother Nature via stars and rivers.
  • The time — 863 days, so long that many feared the explorers died on the journey.
  • The encounters — they met with nearly 50 American Indian tribes, establishing relationships (some for the very first time) and receiving aid during the long voyage.
  • The success — they reached the Pacific as planned and only lost one team member along the way.

But perhaps the biggest long-term impacts were the discoveries: approximately 300 plant and animal species previously unknown to science. And I’m not talking about exotic or uncommon things. Meriwether Lewis, who served as a naturalist on the journey by documenting their scientific discoveries, was the first to describe trees such as bigleaf maple, osage-orange, Pacific madrone, ponderosa pine, Sitka spruce, western red cedar and whitebark pine, among others — not to mention other plant species, like tarragon, a now-popular herb. Then, there are the animals: coyotes; grizzly bears; various woodpeckers; mountain lions; various toads, frogs and snakes; white-tailed deer; American goldfinch’s and other birds; and so many more. The Corps of Discovery introduced the nation to flora and fauna that would become synonymous with the American West. And they did it all without GPS, roads, satellite phones, RVs and other modern luxuries — truly extraordinary. Today, I raise my Lewis and Clark replica compass to these intrepid explorers.

View along the Lewis and Clark Trail

View along the Lewis and Clark Trail. Credit: Dale Chumbley/Flickr

This Week in History
Another historic milestone this week is the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On May 15, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation creating the USDA. While it’s name may imply that it solely deals with farming issues, the USDA is responsible for so much more, from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to the Office of Tribal Relations (OTR). At American Forests, we’re particularly fond of one particular USDA service: the Forest Service! So, this week, we’re also celebrating 150 years of the USDA.


Birds of a Feather

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Bird flock

Credit: Kumon

What is one of the almost universal things that say nature to us humans? It can wake us up in the morning, relax us on a walk, be a taste of the country in the middle of a city and is even used in movies and television simply to say “it’s a nice day out.” That’s right — birdsong. At American Forests, we’re pretty big fans of birds, whether we’re planting trees to protect the Kirtland’s warbler or other birds, telling you where to go to see your feathered friends or reporting on how birds are faring in today’s changing environment. And the explanation is pretty simple: Birds and trees just go together.

Tomorrow is International Migratory Bird Day, or IMBD (not to be confused with the popular movie site IMDB, where The Birds you’ll find are less than friendly). Always the second Saturday in May, IMBD is a day to celebrate and bring awareness to the many birds that cross our paths, both here and abroad.

Bird migration is one of the most amazing and important natural phenomena that we humans get to witness every year. It can tell us a great deal about a species of bird and also speaks volumes about the state of ecosystems, including levels of prey or whether there have been recent disturbances.

Some birds’ migrations only cover short distances, while others travel much further. The arctic tern, for instance, travels an average of 44,000 miles on a wandering route from its arctic breeding ground to its home in the Antarctic. Some species fly low, while others fly thousands of feet above the ground. Bar-headed geese have been known to reach altitudes of 29,000 feet as they migrate across the Himalayas. That birds can find their way on such long trips continues to amaze both the average observer and the educated scientist. They use the sun, the stars and even the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate their way across continents.

Birds prepare for these often rigorous trips by entering a state called hyperphagia, where they eat almost continuously in the days or weeks leading up to the migration, storing the energy from the food as fat to be used on their journey. Some birds store so much energy that they can double their own body weight!

Geese at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

A flock of geese. Credit: USDA

All of this, work, however, is only worth it if the place the birds are going — whether it is a breeding ground, a warm vacation home to wait out the winter or the promise of an all-you-can-eat buffet — is still a healthy ecosystem when the birds arrive. As habitats continue to fall to development, climate change, wildfires and dozens of other factors, more and more migratory birds face a stark reality instead of a warm welcome when they reach their destination.

So how can you get involved in this year’s International Migratory Bird Day? You can go to any of the dozens of bird-centric events that will be taking place across the country to raise awareness of bird conservation, including several at national wildlife refuges. You can also contribute to organizations that work to protect and restore habitats for birds, including American Forests. However you decide to participate, take some time to celebrate our feathered friends this weekend, and don’t forget to check out Environment for the America’s list of 20 Ways to Conserve Birds, from cutting down on plastic to helping to educating others about the issues facing bird conservation.