Ornitho-logic

How One Birder Went from Enthusiast to (Almost) Scientist

By day Minnesota native Beth Siverhus is a medical technologist, but in her off hours, she’s a bit of a bird superhero.

Beth Siverhus requires just a few things to complete her work—sparse winds, clear skies and most importantly, singing birds. For most of this past June, Siverhus surveyed various parts of the Beltrami Island State Forest of northern Minnesota, a 73-year-old habitat of red and jack pines that was ravaged by a forest fire mid-April (it was sparked by remnant embers of a burn pile that took off in a warm, dry, windy spring). At least 4,500 acres were scorched over five days before it was fully contained. When the last hotspots had finally been extinguished, Siverhus got an excited call from Gretchen Mehmel, wildlife supervisor for the Red Lake Wildlife Management Area, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources project 15 miles from the damaged area. Mehmel explained that this particular blaze could provide rare insight into post-fire birdlife—if they got there quick enough.

“The fire had presented a unique opportunity to view the near-immediate impacts of the burn, unlike previous bird disturbance studies in Minnesota,” says Siverhus. Mehmel’s team got to work, picking 100 points to survey—50 within the burn radius and 50 outside. Hoping to understand how birds react to freshly scalded forest, Siverhus spent the wee hours of June visiting each survey site, equipped with her binoculars, stopwatch, survey sheet, GPS and lots of bug spray. At each spot, she took 15 minutes: the first three to jot down unique calls, then two to distinguish between outliers and repeats. The next 10 minutes were devoted to stalking birds in the bush for further identification, or snapping a picture or two. As a seasoned citizen scientist, Siverhus has done this many times, but observing new life against the backdrop of the charred forest was one of the most rewarding experiences of her career.

Forests stricken by fire may look dead, but actually they support a wealth of life. In the Beltrami Island State Forest, Siverhus found Black-backed Woodpeckers hunting the droves of beetles infesting dying pines. Mourning Doves, Northern Goshawks, Flickers, and Scarlet Tanagers were also easy to spot, as were Red Crossbills gorging on heat-burst pinecones. “A whole family of crossbills living right in the worst of the damage came right out to see me,” she says. “The survey reminded me of an important ecological truth: With all natural processes, there are benefits and losses, but fire is part of a life-supporting cycle.”

Nurturing a Bird Obsession

For two decades Siverhus has helped run annual breeding bird surveys for the U.S. Geological Survey and contributed heavily to the first phase of Minnesota's recent Breeding Bird Atlas—a conservation project mapping each species that breeds in the state and their specific habitats. She’s also the person enthusiastic birders’ call for advice on local sighting spots, and a certified wildlife rehabilitator, providing downed-birds and other injured critters with basic triage and shelter. Siverhus even worked with local manufacturers Marvin Windows and Polaris Industries to score free rides for bad-off birds to the University of Minnesota’s world-renowned Raptor Center—pilots from each company donate space on their corporate jets, with approval from the companies themselves.

Siverhus says she got hooked on birds almost 20 years ago, when Mehmel asked her to help with the Western Great Lakes Owl Monitoring project in the spring of 1996.  The same year she met and began training with master wildlife rehabber and animal artist Pat Oldham, a family friend. Today she says it’s become near impossible to turn down any bird-related project she’s pitched. She’s getting busier each year. “Everyone knows by now that the word ‘no’ isn’t really in my vocabulary anymore when it comes to my avian friends,” she says.

A photo taken in June 2015 shows how the spring forest fire left the Beltrami Island State Forest. Photo: Beth Siverhus

Turning Passion into Science

Siverhus deems her bird-pursuits ‘hobbies,’ but the fire data could end up providing new insight into the relationship between birds and wildfires. When she’s not busy working as a full-time supervisory medical technologist at the LifeCare Medical Center, Siverhus has been collaborating with the Red Lake DNR team to turn her data into concrete results And after she crunches these numbers, she plans to collect more—she’ll keep surveying this forest for years to come as it changes in response to the fire. It’s long been known that forest fires are crucial to the maintenance of certain habitats, preventing understory brush from encroaching and altering ecosystems some birds rely on (read our September-October magazine feature on that issue), but her research will help determine which birds potentially benefited from the fire, and which didn’t do as well.

For example, the burned forest should become ideal Golden-winged Warbler habitat—the recovering open patch of forest acting as nesting sites while the close-by mature aspen forest could offer prospecting grounds to new fledglings and adults. Golden-wings have lost 76 percent of their global population since 1966, and they’re mostly American birds by range (Minnesota, a rare haven for the bird, hosts half its remaining population).

“We mostly mourn forest fires, worrying about air-pollution, forest product losses, and of course, animals trapped in the flames, but to see birds prospering in spite, or even because of fire,” Siverhus pauses. “I really can’t explain what that feels like.”

But thanks to her data, she hopes her work will allow others to see the beauty in the burn too.

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