I met Danielle and three of her volunteers on a rainy weekday morning. We trekked from the road through a path that cut through blueberry bushes and morning glories, downhill toward the marsh. We were there to see the great blue herons: tall birds with lanky legs and sword-like beaks nesting precariously in the tops of trees. As we rounded the corner, we hushed. Danielle got out her binoculars and one of her volunteers scribbled notes. I tried, without luck, to take photos of the birds, captivating through the eye, but too far away for any of my lenses to capture their grace. Danielle, a biologist, has organized a statewide network of people invested in the lives of herons, who volunteer to count and monitor Maine’s colonies of herons.
HOW DID YOU END UP BECOMING A BIOLOGIST?
Well, as a kid I always wanted to do something in science and that morphed to biology. Really it started with marine biology. Marine biology was my main interest. I was limited on money as far as where I could go to college, so I went to a state school in New York. There weren’t a lot of opportunities in western New York for marine biology, so I just took all the opportunities I could find to do biology work and most of them ended up being bird work. I worked with a professor in a lab studying bird migration and then I had an internship at a raptor migration center and that built my interest in birds. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. And so I came to love birds in general.
I still had a broad interest in wildlife work, so I was open to doing almost anything when it came time to go to grad school. But once again the opportunity that got thrown my way was to study birds. I studied birds in New Mexico, a species called Chihuahuan ravens, which I had never heard of before I got offered the assistantship. So I jumped at that opportunity to get to go to grad school. Most of the work I’ve done was just seasonal positions. That’s how you start out, you do seasonal positions in the summers doing little surveys here and there. Most of it was what we call non-game bird species: a lot of birds that are threatened or endangered or at risk. It just ballooned into a bigger interest and one opportunity lead to another.
WHAT IS IT THAT REALLY DRAWS YOU TO BIRDS?
I think it’s the diversity and some of the neat habits of birds. Obviously, they can fly and that’s an amazing thing. I’d love to fly like a bird; it’d be an amazing ability to have! But they’re all so different, they all have little intricacies. Whether it’s breeding behavior, courtship behavior, where they nest, how they nest, what they feed on, how they catch their prey, there’s just such a diversity when you start looking at the whole bird world. And they’re a fun thing to see. They’re visible, they’re out there, so you can go birding, you can go out on a walk like we did today and hear them or see them. It’s kind of neat because there’s all these different species all around us and they’re all unique.
TELL ME ABOUT THE HERON COUNT
The group or the program is called the Heron Observation Network of Maine. We started in 2009 – we meaning me and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife – and we started it because we had seen a decline on our coastal islands where we have great blue herons nesting. We have paid really close attention to the coastal islands in terms of all sorts of bird species, primarily monitoring eagles with their recovery. We did a lot of aerial surveys, and when we’ve counted other things like eagles or cormorants or something else, we also noted when there’s herons. So we had really good, consistent data over this timeframe from about the 70s through the point the last survey had been done around ‘96. So then in 2009 we did our regular review of species to see if any aren’t listed and endangered or threatened. When we did our listing review (that was before I was in my position) the biologist before me had noted there was a decline seen from the 70s or 80s to the mid-90s on our coastal islands. And our breeding bird survey data showed a decline as well. So he said, “let’s list it as special concern and try to figure out what’s going on.”
So when I came into my position, I took a closer look and started to look at where are all the colonies we’ve ever known about in Maine. We started compiling data and realized we really didn’t know much about what was inland and that’s where I said, “we need to do some surveys, survey all the historic sites, and get some volunteers to help out in monitoring sites so we can see if this decline is going on all across the state.” So that’s how that all started. In 2009 we did a lot of press releases trying to recruit volunteers and we did an aerial survey checking all the historic sites and did a lot of groundwork. We learn about new sites every year from the public or volunteers, and so those get added to the list of places we monitor with volunteers. So it’s grown over the years.
Now we have probably at least 100 volunteers who are involved and another 100 more who have expressed interest, but we might not have a good site for them to monitor. It’s grown quite a bit and volunteers basically adopt – we call it “adopting” – a colony. They’ll go out at least once, but a lot of people are willing to go out more often, so they’ll go out maybe once every two weeks and record the status of the nest and see how many young there are and whether they make it to fledgling. All that data gets fed to me, either through online data entry or a paper system.
DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU GET TO FOLLOW THE STORIES OF BIRDS?
Yeah. It’s pretty interesting. Every site is so unique and some of my volunteers don’t hesitate to contact me, so I talk a lot with them about what’s going on at certain sites. We’ve got one site that we’ve been watching really closely because the last two years it’s failed and one year we had a bald eagle that actually drowned an adult heron at the site and the volunteers witnessed it. So we’ve been watching the site closely and this year we have a camera up on it, a time lapse camera, to see if we can see what’s happening. For the longest time there were no birds there every time the volunteers went out but on the camera we could see the birds coming now and then, checking out the nest, but then leaving.
So it’s just all these questions in your mind about what’s happening: Are they just tentative and not wanting to nest there because of the problems with the eagle? Now there’s a bird incubating on one of the nests so we’re rooting for the bird. Maybe they’ll make it this year! So you do start rooting for them and wondering about them. For me it’s just lots of questions. I wonder why this pair is doing this or why this pair started later than this pair. Did something happen?
IS THERE A TEACHING ELEMENT TO WHAT YOU’RE DOING? ARE YOU TRYING TO TELL THE GENERAL COMMUNITY ABOUT THESE BIRDS?
Yes. I do public talks a lot, both on herons and other species of birds. The more people get to learn about them, the more they’ll appreciate them and the more they’ll want to do things that might help the species or the individual birds. With the herons I do a lot of public talks, people request them, clubs and other groups. I mostly tell them about natural history and people seem interested or fascinated, and it makes them think twice about certain things. Whether it’s protecting a wetland that’s nearby, or how to protect or better take care of water quality, or even just the whole disturbance factor with herons. Like today when we were out we tried to be quiet and tried not to make any sudden noises and just let them do their thing. All sorts of things can disturb them. Whether it’s people noise or machinery noise. So teaching people to give them a wider berth when they need it.
DO YOU FEEL THERE’S A MESSAGE YOU’D LIKE TO TELL THE GENERAL PUBLIC ABOUT HOW TO BE GOOD TO BIRDS OR HOW TO TREAT THAT ECOSYSTEM WELL?
More and more I think I’d like to stress just respecting wildlife in general and giving them the space that they need. A lot of the time, especially nowadays with cameras, we all want to get great pictures and this and that. We think, “What’s it going to hurt to go a little closer?” But it would be nice to just give wildlife and birds the space they need to do their thing and try not to cause too much disturbance to them. Because humans have already taken up so much space, just let them do what they want to do in the areas that we’re not occupying.
DO YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT WHERE THE BIRDS ARE NESTING? IS THERE A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF DISCRETION YOU USE?
I mostly don’t tell people about exact locations unless I know the people personally and I know exactly how they’re going to act and know they’ll give the birds the distance and the respect they need. They’re all different. Some sites you can be really close to their nests and the birds don’t budge and they don’t seem to care and then other sites as soon as you even approach in the woods, before you can even see the nest, they’re off the nest and flying around and disturbed. So that’s the hard thing. It’s such a spectrum of how they react to disturbances and that’s why I hesitate to tell people exact locations. Obviously I tell people who are interested in monitoring the locations, so they can find them, but they also get the information about how they are susceptible to disturbance and to respect that.
When these birds are foraging – sometimes they will forage in the wetlands that they’re nesting in but they will travel two and a half miles on average to a foraging site. When they’re foraging that’s another thing. Yes, you don’t want to disturb them there either but that’s a better time to observe them because there’s not young that might get cold if the adult flies away and doesn’t come back for an hour. There’s less at risk there so that would be a better way to point people. To go out to an estuary at mid to low tide and see if you can find a heron that is foraging there.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE TYPE OF BIRD?
One of my favorites is ravens and primarily because I studied Chihuahuan ravens when I was in the Southwest. I love ravens, just from studying them. I spent a lot of time watching them and observing them and realizing how smart they are and trying to outsmart them, which was not easy. So they’re definitely one of my favorites. Herons have grown to be one of my favorites. When I started in this position, I knew a lot about other non-game birds but hadn’t really focused a lot on herons, so I didn’t know them that well at first, and the more I learn about them they’re now one of my favorites. I have a lot of favorites. Loons are another one. It’s hard to pick one.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU IN YOUR LIFE?
My family is most important to me right now. Absolutely. I have small children and a husband, they’re my life. They come first. Even as passionate as I am about my work, they always come first.
WHAT IS A LESSON THAT YOU’RE LEARNING IN YOUR LIFE OR HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY?
I wouldn’t say I’ve actually learned it yet but I’m constantly trying to figure out how to balance it all. That’s always a struggle, I think for a lot of people, but working full time and having a family, wanting to do it all, just trying to prioritize things and figuring out that you can only do so much, there’s only so much time in a day and you’ve just got to figure out what’s the most important and then know when to stop and pick it up the next day.
WHAT’S THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
I think the best moment is when you’re relaxed enough that you can actually take a step back and look around you and see how fortunate you are. Just to take it all in and be present right then in that moment. I try to do that more and more – take a step back and look around, especially when my kids are happy because it’s one of those things you’ve got to remember, to keep this with you.