Updates & New Research

Hello! It’s been quite some time since I’ve last written a blog post. So here’s some quick updates since my last post in winter 2017. You can start to expect more regular posts and my newest research adventure progresses.

I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2017 with a Master of Environmental Studies (created my own concentration and it’s Ecology). I then started my doctoral degree program in fall of 2017 at Drexel University in Environmental Science. I’m still at Drexel, and recently changed research projects to studying the biodiversity and human use of urban cemeteries in Philadelphia. Before that I was working on biogeography and ecology of Jamaican land snails. While I still care about the research I’m finishing up in that subject area, I’m super excited to be working on this cemetery biodiversity project.

How the heck did I get into that you ask? (Since nearly everyone I tell does.) Well, it started in summer of 2019 when I was testing some field methods for land snails in the Philadelphia area. I was going to Jamaica later that year, and needed to test out some methodology that I would be employing in the field there. I tried to pick places in Philly where I thought slugs and snails would be and that included some local parks, and cemeteries. In Jamaica, you can find snails pretty much everywhere. There’s over 500 species of indigenous land snails in Jamaica, but here in Philly there are far fewer and more difficult to find (and it’s usually not indigenous species that you find). So, I was spending time in these cemeteries looking for mollusks and not really finding any with shells – which is what I needed for the Jamaica research. I ended up finding snails in the suburbs and was able to test those methods there. However, I couldn’t let go of the idea that it would be really cool to understand the biodiversity of urban cemeteries in Philadelphia. I also was curious about how cemeteries were being utilized by humans as urban green spaces rather than just places of mourning, burial, and death. So that’s how I got to this project today!

Malaise trap at Mt. Moriah Cemetery in June 2021 (photo credit: Heather Kostick).

I started developing this research in late 2020, and really began sussing out protocols and literature in early 2021. Now that we’re here, it’s almost summer officially and I am conducting field work on urban cemeteries. I’m collecting data on trees, herbaceous plants, birds, and invertebrates (insects, arthropods, mollusks). I’ll be periodically writing up posts for here and other places, and will share updates and progress as I’m able. I’m looking forward to collecting all this data and being able to possibly begin to understand how biodiversity at these sites is impacted by human management and use. Stay tuned!

Winter Birding: Get Outside and Freeze Your Retrices Off!

Just because it’s winter in the northeastern US, doesn’t mean you can’t go birding; and honestly with the mild winter weather, there’s no excuse! Plenty of species are around this time of year that normally are not. We get our own mix of migrants during the winter that range from the Snowy Owl to Snow Buntings and southern or western residents that somehow got mixed up in their migratory trajectory. eBird is a great place to go see your local hotspots and find those wayward birds that could be a lifer for you.

Image result for snowy owl
A Snowy Owl takes flight – credit: Cornell All About Birds

A favorite bird to go looking for is the Snowy Owl, and with good reason. This striking bird breeds and mostly lives up north in the frozen tundra, but in the winter, they sometimes come farther south and give us an opportunity to observe this elegant species. I saw a Snowy Owl once a couple of years back. My significant other and I were on the way to a concert driving on one of the country’s busiest thoroughfares, I-95, when the owl flew in front of/above our car and over the highway to the other side of John Heinz Wildlife Refuge. It was quite exciting, and frustrating because sometimes your lifer does not happen when it’s convenient.

Snow Geese
Snow Geese making a stop at Middle Creek on their annual migration up to the Arctic for breeding.

However, there are some places where your lifer comes out en masse. A great place to see tens of thousands of Snow Geese is Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area starting in mid-February and lasting until about mid-March. It seems this year, the migration has started a little early, but with the mild weather, the trip to Lancaster County should be a breeze! There’s nothing quite like the sight or sound of seeing tens of thousands of geese moving around.

So, what are you waiting for? Get outside and bird! With the Great Backyard Bird Count coming up, there’s an extra excuse to get outside!


Breaking Down Science: An Article On Bird Migration And Climate Extremes

Ah, migration – what a wondrous time of year. The seasons are changing, birds are moving, and scientists are science-ing, or rather researching. However, none of this research is worth it if it’s not accessible to everyone. Articles can be heady and full of jargon that is confusing unless you are very familiar with the field of study. The article I’m going to write about is called “The implications of mid-latitude climate extremes for North American migratory bird populations” by Sorte, Hochachka, Farnsworth, Dhondt and Sheldon (hence forth referred to as Sorte, et al.). Basically, the researchers of this article took a bunch of data from eBird over a five-year period, and analyzed it to look at effects of climate extremes at mid-latitudes (see map below) on migratory bird species. They looked at short-distance vs. long-distance migrants occurring over non-marine areas; and used eBird checklists that were complete and that used either stationary, traveling, or area sampling methods of bird observations. It should also be noted that they did not look at anomalies such as accidental species (birds that got lost while migrating) or species associated with primarily marine environments (seabirds).


Mid-latitudes are located around 45 degrees North and South.

In case you weren’t aware, extreme weather and weather events are expected to increase over time. So, buckle up, fellow humans, the weather is going to get weird and it could be problematic for our fellow creatures, specifically migrating birds. The results of this study showed that basically some longer-distance-migrating species experienced climate-related stress during spring migration (primarily the month of March in this study) and then had a low productivity during the summer months (AKA breeding season for most creatures in the Western Hemisphere in non-tropical areas). However, the species that had a shorter distance to migrate seemed to show some resilience and flexibility when it came to dealing with the stress of climate extremes because they could detect changes and adjust. Migration is cued by seasonal changes, so if the changes occur at atypical times and birds follow those cues, then it can be problematic when extremes occur.

Why are these climate extremes a problem for migratory birds? Well, for species that have a long distance to migrate, these birds are expecting the weather to be a certain way upon arrival, and are unlikely to be able to detect and adjust for seasonal climate extremes during migration. If it’s incredibly hot or cold or there’s an intense storm, that will take away precious energy resources typically used for breeding. This will result in getting allocated to feeding and/or protecting themselves, and keeping warm or cool when they normally would not have to.

Enjoy this blackpoll warbler, who breeds in boreal coniferous forests of Canada and Alaska in the summer. In the fall, these birds fly 1500 miles nearly non-stop down to eastern South America. This species is a long-distance migrant.

While this study looks at a lot of data and presents interesting findings that are probable, I believe more research needs to be done. Since everyone and anyone can submit to eBird, there are varying skill levels and not all observations may be accurate. I think that perhaps if this study only contained checklists from well-known, experienced birders, scientists, and researchers, then the data may be more credible.


Magnificent Monday: Spix’s Macaw Is Back!

You may have heard of this species since it inspired the movie Rio, an animated movie about Blu, a Blue Macaw (really, it’s a Spix’s but they changed that in the movie), who is raised in captivity after being poached from the wild, and ends up back in Brazil for a breeding program, and then the story gets a little complicated after that when he’s poached again. I won’t ruin the rest of it, but it’s a good movie, so see it for yourself – my birds also enjoy the movie. Now, let’s get to the clip of the real Spix’s macaw flying in Brazil…

The video evidence: http://www.birdlife.org/americas/news/spix%E2%80%99s-macaw-reappears-brazil 

Now that you’ve seen it for yourself…

This is not the only species to make a comeback from extinction: American Alligator, Canada Goose, White-tailed Deer, Whooping Crane, Gray Wolf, Grizzly Bear, Giant Pandas, etc.

Look at those two little dinosaurs... I mean Spix's macaws. Source: Audubon.
Look at those two little dinosaurs… I mean Spix’s macaws.
Source: Audubon.

This comeback is wonderful considering it’s humans that generally are speeding up the process of extinction with deforestation, over-hunting/over-fishing/over-harvesting, pollution, farming, global warming, poaching, and whatever else it is that our species does to drastically change the environment. Perhaps that like other success stories, this is an indication that despite the threats, something humans have changed (i.e., forest practices, habitat restoration and/or protection) have had a positive impact on the comeback of the species. However, considering that rainforests and other habitats of Brazil are still highly under threat, Spix’s macaw is not out of the woods yet. Also, I hope that researchers are going to go in there soon to do some monitoring and find more individuals of this macaw species. It’s been 15 years since the last one was spotted in the wild, so hopefully just like in Rio 2, they’ve found a mini pocket of undisturbed paradise that will get protected to prevent any more disturbance by humans.

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

2014: Second-to-last born in the wild Spix’s macaw dies at around the age of 40

More success stories of species recovery

Information on Deforestation and Rainforest Threats:


NatGeo Rainforest Threats

Threats to the Amazon

WWF Overview on Deforestation



Fantastic Friday: Creches

Today this French-based term isn’t about a tableau for the birth of Jesus, or a British daycare or nursery. This is about animal behavior and the communal care and raising of young. This is a behavior that is exhibited by some bird species, particularly aquatic-based birds such as ducks, geese, eiders, penguins, and cormorants.

Female Mallard with ducklings. Washington, D.C. May 2016. Photo credit: Heather L. Kostick
Female Mallard with ducklings. Washington, D.C. May 2016. Photo credit: Heather L. Kostick

So, how does this even happen? Well, in some cases it’s just parents feeding the wrong kid, like in the case of cliff swallows who are colonial nesters. In other cases, there could be a territory dispute between females with young in tow, and a mix-up of children happens, and they end up with a different mother than they arrived with. However, sometimes it’s just moms teaming up and taking the “it takes a village” approach to parenting. Sometimes even non-breeding females will assist with the care of the young. I observed an example of a creche in D.C. when I was in town for the National Geographic BioBlitz, when a female Mallard had three ducklings in tow, and one of them was decidedly younger than the other two (not pictured). A National Park Service ranger informed me that it’s very common in the Constitutional Gardens to see that sort of thing, and that it was probably poor parenting on the other hen’s part that led to the hen I saw with the mixed-ages young.

So, this is mostly a bird behavior, but there are mammals, such as humans (ever drop know a kid dropped off to a daycare center?) and lions, that exhibit this behavior. It’s pretty cool to see instances of what could be considered adoption and/or daycare in species outside of Homo sapiens.

A little more information and examples:

Brandt’s Cormorants


African Lions 1

African Lions 2 

Thesis Stuff: June Bioblitz A Success

Holy hoonah! That phrase about sums up my June bioblitz for my capstone work, which was a success if I do say so myself. I’m still working on the species count, but it’s looking like we will break last year’s 299 record. Until I have a pretty chart or graph to post, take a look at some pictures from the day.

(photo credit: Heather Kostick)

Mama tree swallow peaking out of her nest box - sorry for bothering you, mama, but I was chasing insects.
Mama tree swallow peaking out of her nest box – sorry for bothering you, mama, but I was chasing insects.

fairy ring fungi in mint
fairy ring fungi in mint

Sphinx attracted to the mercury lamp sheet
Sphinx attracted to the mercury lamp sheet