Photo: NPS

People often enjoy spending time outdoors for peace and quiet, but rarely is the forest completely silent. Glacier National Park has over 260 bird species that you have the opportunity to hear when spending time in the dense forest areas. Because of the important roles they play in the environment, studying bird population trends is a top priority among conservation biologists. 

In National Parks, MAPS stations are being established to study birds, analyze their reproductive successes, and aid in their conservation. MAPS stands for “Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship” – and there is a real need to have more MAPS stations in National Parks because of the protective status they provide, and our need to better understand factors that could be affecting bird populations.

Keep reading to learn more about MAPS stations in Glacier National Park, made possible thanks to your donations to the Glacier Conservancy!

Program continues critical bird conservation research in glacier

The Glacier Conservancy recently had the opportunity to connect with Lisa Bate, wildlife conservationist and head of the MAPS program in Glacier National Park. 

Glacier National Park Conservancy (GNPC): What is the MAPS program? Can you talk a little more about it and the importance of having the program in Glacier National Park?

Lisa Bate (LB): MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) is a cooperative bird monitoring research effort among public and private agencies throughout the US, Canada, and northern Mexico. The focus is to provide critical long-term data on population and demographic factors for over 150 targeted land birds. We do things like the Christmas bird count and the breeding bird surveys and that gives us density and abundance and can track trends with that data, but the difference with this program is that we can really learn about the survivorship of the adults and juveniles and learn if the populations are increasing or decreasing and where that is the occurring. 

A few years ago I was on a National Park webinar of bird biologists through the National Park Service and they talked about the importance of MAPS stations in National Parks because they are undeveloped and protected from extractive industries. Bird numbers are just declining for a lot of species and it’s important to track what’s happening, especially in a national park. 

Glacier National Park Conservancy (GNPC): Can you explain what a typical day in the field looks like?

Lisa Bate (LB): Each morning we meet outside the office to load up all the gear to get us set up for the day. We will then walk 15 minutes in the dark to the first site where we will break into groups to get all the nets set up. Once the nets are ready, I will set a 30 minute timer, and we’ll break into two teams with one team checking nets 1-5 and the other 6-10. We alternate which team checks which nets because we get more birds at certain nets, and everyone wants to get more birds! When we capture a bird we transfer it into a bag as long as it’s not a species that’s sensitive to handling like a Swainson’s thrush or robin. When we get a sensitive bird like that we bump it to the front of the line to be processed immediately and released. Otherwise, we process them in the order we capture them. We leave the nets up for 6 hours unless the weather gets too windy, rainy, or hot.

Every day is a surprise but some days you get really exciting surprises like catching a red-eyed vireo or a hairy woodpecker. I did my graduate work on woodpeckers and their habitat so I get really excited when we catch a woodpecker! One time we caught a Cooper’s hawk but right as I walked up it broke free. We do keep a leather glove on hand incase we have something like that in our nets. We keep track of every species we encounter on the site and as of last year we were over 70 types of bird species. I am hoping to release data from 2022 this fall or early winter. 

A hand holds a small bird during a research study on wildlife in Glacier National Park

Photo: NPS

Glacier National Park Conservancy (GNPC): Have you personally witnessed effects from climate change during your time as a bird biologist?

Lisa Bate (LB): Climate change is a huge factor. This year the flooding caused challenges to our site at Lower McDonald Creek and we couldn’t operate our nets in that area the entire month of June–in some areas the water was 5ft deep! Each year we get a little flooding during the spring but it’s not a big deal, we wear gaiters and adjust where needed but this year you could’ve kayaked our site. Nets 2 and 3 are typically our most productive nets but this year they were underwater for so long that I noticed they had low productivity this year, it’s been really interesting to see that change.

Each year we have the same goal because MAPS deals with long term data monitoring and it takes awhile to collect data around survivorship. It’s exciting when you start recapturing birds you banded in the past year or birds that have been banded elsewhere. All of our data goes into the USGS banded bird database so we can find where a bird was banded and vice versa. Our birds can be picked up in Costa Rica or Mexico, with that information we get to learn where Glacier’s birds are traveling to. You’re always reading about the Amazon and how forests are disappearing down there and you wonder: is that affecting our birds up here? Hopefully not but we’re trying to learn. 

A researcher holds a small bird while studying birds in Glacier National Park

Photo: NPS

A group heading into the field with Lisa Bate during a MAPS day in Glacier National Park.

Glacier National Park Conservancy (GNPC): When did your passion for conservation begin?

Lisa Bate (LB): Probably when I was a kid catching everything I could in the creeks around my house. I’ve always been fascinated with anything that moves. As I got older I thought I would be a veterinarian, that was before I knew about wildlife biology. When I started hearing speakers talk about how everything is interconnected I realized that it’s really ecology that’s my passion. Everything is interconnected, that’s what I love about science and trying to understand it and do research to aid in the conservation of a lot of these species that we have concerns about. The learning curve is so steep that I would say it’s vertical!

Glacier National Park Conservancy (GNPC): What is your hope for the future of the program?

Lisa Bate (LB): I just so strongly believe in lighting the next generation of biologists on fire and educating young people and providing opportunities. Because of the Conservancy and donors we have been able to bring on a bird conservation intern for the past three years, these are teenagers and it gives them an opportunity to see if this is something they want to pursue and it informs them about birds, bird ecology, bird conservation and some of the challenges they face. Another goal is identifying the root causes of bird population declines or increases, whether the problems are more serious on breeding or non-breeding grounds, and what it is that affects trends in different areas. 

A bird is banded in part of a research study on birds being conducted in Glacier National Park

Photo: Lisa Bate

A bird flies off a researcher's arm during a study about birds in Glacier National Park

Photo: NPS

Seeing Birds In Glacier

Learn more about birds in Glacier, and download this checklist to keep track of your bird sightings during your next visit to the park!

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