Citizen Science

Birders: Report Forest Pests During the Christmas Bird Count

December 14, 2015

Emerald ash borer (EAB) exit hole on left, and woodpecker foraging hole on right. The woodpecker is likely seeking adjacent EAB larvae. Photo © David Cappaert, Michigan State University, forestryimages.org

Planning on exercising your citizen-science muscles this winter? The Christmas Bird Count, run by the National Audubon Society, is the longest running wildlife census in the world- and one of the most successful citizen science projects in existence.

The 2015 counts start December 14, 2015 and run until January 5, 2015. To participate, birders must first find their local group, called a Circle, allowing them to become part of the official count process.

Conservancy scientists are now asking for assistance from birders in looking for signs of damage from invasive tree pests like emerald ash borer, Asian longhorned beetle and others.

Because invasive forest insects are often preyed upon by native woodpeckers, the damage that birdwatchers can learn about and look for comes in three types; natural woodpecker foraging on native forest insects, heavy damage from woodpeckers foraging on high densities of invasive insects in trees, and signs of damage from the life cycle of the invasive insects themselves.

Natural woodpecker foraging, such as these this line of shallow holes created by a yellow-bellied sapsucker, is not considered a sign of invasive insects or diseases. Photo © James Solomon, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org
Natural woodpecker foraging, such as this line of shallow holes created by a yellow-bellied sapsucker, is not considered a sign of invasive insects or diseases. Photo © James Solomon, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

Many state agricultural and forestry agencies around the country are joining in the effort to encourage birdwatchers to learn the difference between typical signs of woodpecker and sapsucker foraging, and the subtly different signs of damage connected to forest insects.

“The Christmas Bird Count is an ideal opportunity for bird watchers to check the trees for signs of invasive pests like Asian longhorned beetle and emerald ash borer,” said Jennifer Forman Orth, State Plant Pest Survey Coordinator at the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.

She continues:  “The damage from these insects can easily be seen in winter, when there are no leaves on the trees, and birdwatchers are typically armed with a pair of binoculars that will help them check high-up branches for the perfectly round holes left by Asian longhorned beetles in maples and other hardwoods, or the increased woodpecker activity and removal of bark (“blonding”) caused by excessive woodpecker activity associated with emerald ash borer infestations in ash trees.”

Birdwatchers can download the free Birdwatcher’s Field Guide to Holes in Trees, a handout produced by the Conservancy.

This short photo guide explains the differences between holes made by typical woodpecker and sapsucker foraging, holes made by woodpeckers seeking invasive insect larvae, and holes caused by the invasive insects themselves.

Participants in the Christmas Bird Count should report any suspicious damage or signs of forest pests as soon as they have finished providing their bird count compiler with their bird data.

Birders are encouraged to take digital photos of any potentially forest insect related damage observed, identify the species of tree with the damage if possible, and then report findings using websites (see below for a listing) or regional pest reporting phone apps.

“Trees and forests are an essential part of our lives, and they provide clean air and water, jobs and products, and vital wildlife habitat.  From tree-lined neighborhood streets to national parks, we count on trees to provide benefits today and for generations to come,” says Bill Toomey, Director of Forest Health Protection for The Nature Conservancy. “That’s why it’s critical for everyone to be aware of the trees around them and take simple actions to help protect them- such as looking for and reporting signs of insects or diseases.”

Stripping of ash bark by woodpeckers while seeking emerald ash borer larvae; this foraging damage is called “blonding." Photo: Jennifer Forman Orth, MDAR.
Stripping of ash bark by woodpeckers while seeking emerald ash borer larvae; this foraging damage is called “blonding.” Photo: Jennifer Forman Orth, MDAR.

For more information on regionally and nationally important invasive forest pests, and how to report potential signs of infestation, please refer to the websites below.

*   Asian longhorned beetle
*   Emerald ash borer
*   Thousand Cankers Disease of Walnut
*   Gypsy Moth
*   Goldspotted Oak Borer
*   Sudden Oak Death
*   Laurel Wilt
*   For other pests of high interest to the United States Department of Agriculture, please look up the appropriate state on the map at http://www.hungrypests.com/

Download your handout today, and learn more about Holes in Trees!

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