Evaluating the role of small forested islands in Maine as climate change refugia for boreal songbirds

Maine Natural History Observatory
Bangor, Maine
DOI: 10.18258/57091
Raised of $2,000 Goal
Funded on 12/11/23
Successfully Funded
  • $2,000
  • 100%
  • Funded
    on 12/11/23

About This Project

Maine has historically provided vast habitat for forest-breeding birds. Numerous species that breed in North American boreal forests exhibit southern range margins in Maine. As the state's climate warms during the 21st century, climatic models suggest that high elevation and eastern coastal zones may provide cool microhabitats where boreal breeding birds can persist. This project will address current inventory gaps by characterizing the forest songbird communities on twelve Maine islands.

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What is the context of this research?

The recently completed 2nd Maine Bird Atlas (MBA; 2018­–2022) compiled extensive data on the distribution and abundance of breeding birds in Maine. MBA data will document changes in species’ distributions and abundances since the completion of the 1st MBA (1978–1983). These logistically challenging, multi-year atlases are critical benchmarks in our understanding of how birds are responding to climate change. While the 2nd MBA had extensive spatial coverage across Maine, there are significant data gaps that remain. In particular, the MBA included only a small subset of the thousands of coastal islands that span the Maine coast. There are few available data on the use of small forested islands—an abundant habitat type in Maine—by breeding landbirds.

What is the significance of this project?

As mean and maximum air temperatures increase in Maine over the 21st century, the distributions of some landbirds are predicted to shift toward cooler microclimates, such as northern forest and eastern coastal zones. Given these probable range contractions in Maine for some landbirds, it is critical to collect comprehensive baseline data in the zones of future climate change refugia. Monitoring avian biodiversity on small forested islands will allow wildlife managers and island recreators in Maine to understand the value of this widespread habitat type within the larger coastal ecosystem.

What are the goals of the project?

We will use a passive acoustic monitoring approach on twelve islands in Maine between Penobscot Bay and Cobscook Bay. Autonomous recording units (ARUs) will be deployed on islands in mid-May and retrieved in mid-July. ARUs will collect acoustic data for two hours after sunrise and one hour before sunset, during which periods breeding birds are most vocally active. We will place units within various sub-habitat types—such as forest interior, forest edge, and shrubland—to maximize detection across bird groups. The main output from this project with be an open-access, interactive geospatial web tool that will allow wildlife biologists and the public to view our project data.


Please wait...

Our funding target of $2000 will allow us to purchase four autonomous recording units (ARUs; $499 each). With two ARUs per island, this will allow us to add two islands to the project. We are using a passive acoustic monitoring approach to collect data on island bird communities.

Endorsed by

The Nature Conservancy in Maine is excited to partner with Elliot and the whole Maine Natural History Observatory team on this important study. Coastal islands may be important habitat for rare songbirds, and we need to learn more about how the birds are using these islands and how we can care for them through our stewardship. We are supporting this research with our land and our funding, and we hope you will, too!
I'm very excited about what this project will discover about breeding bird ecology on Maine's coastal islands! The use of Autonomous Recording Units (ARUs) will allow the research team to gather data on these remote and understudied habitats. Because Maine's islands may serve as climate change refugia for boreal songbirds, research that provides benchmarks of which species are breeding where will be crucial for future conservation efforts.

Project Timeline

As of mid-October 2023, we are working with several organizations in Maine (such as The Nature Conservancy and Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge) to finalize the list of islands to include in the study. We will deploy acoustic units on islands between mid-May and mid-July 2024. The second half of 2024 will be spent determining species identities in the acoustic data and building the interactive geospatial web tool.

Oct 15, 2023

Finish analyzing acoustic data

Oct 27, 2023

Project Launched

Dec 31, 2023

Finalize list of research islands

May 15, 2024

Deploy ARUs on islands

Jul 15, 2024

Retrieve ARUs from islands

Meet the Team

Elliot Johnston
Elliot Johnston
Postdoctoral Research Associate


Maine Natural History Observatory
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Elliot Johnston

Elliot is a community ecologist who is interested in wildlife-habitat relationships and species interactions, and, ultimately, how this information can shape effective conservation actions. He completed his PhD in Ecology and Environmental Science at the University of Maine in 2023, and he is excited to continue developing coastal research projects at Maine Natural History Observatory. During graduate school, his research included examining the effects of commercial seaweed harvest on intertidal birds, describing the winter diet of Purple Sandpipers, and examining the foraging ecology of a subalpine amphibian population. Elliot resides in Bangor, Maine and is an avid trail runner and sea kayaker.

Additional Information

Map of the pilot phase of the project during summer 2023. We successfully piloted our study design on two islands in Maine.