Backpacks are loaded, hiking boots are laced and binoculars are focused. Important research benefiting avian conservation is underway, and an Upper Iowa University professor and student are among its team leaders.
UIU Assistant Professor of Biology Paul Skrade initially received a $2,500 Wildlife Diversity research grant from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in February 2016. Those funds went toward purchasing equipment, such as binoculars and field notebooks as well as travel expenses, so that a larger area of habitat could be explored. With the assistance of UIU senior Chase Grabau, Skrade is now working alongside wildlife researcher Jon Stravers to study avian species of conservation concern, such as the Cerulean Warbler, Acadian Flycatcher, and Veery.
A transfer student majoring in conservation management, Grabau came to UIU with an associate degree in parks and natural resources from Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids. Grabau took a first semester ornithology class with Skrade that piqued his interest in birds. The Robins, Iowa, native began the research that ultimately developed into his senior project by furthering work conducted by UIU alumnus Cory Thielen ’16. Alongside Skrade, Thielen had researched the preferred landscape scale habitat of Cerulean Warblers.
Cerulean Warblers are also a specialty of researcher Jon Stravers, who has been working with birds in the area for decades. With surveys needed on new Iowa DNR properties, the researcher knew he would require another set of eyes and ears.
Skrade and Stravers teamed up in 2014, and the project has continued to expand. The UIU professor is enthusiastic in his description of Grabau as a student and the opportunity to collaborate with him on this research project.
“Chase is an excellent student who, when he asks a question, you say, ‘That’s a great question,’ and then the answer to his question is on the very next (classroom) slide,” Skrade said. “He asks questions beyond the scope of the class, and I had no concern about his research capabilities.”
The project took Grabau to Yellow River State Forest in Allamakee County and often kept him there into the evening hours. His research involved recording the avian species, the distance to reach them, weather conditions, time, and habitat characteristics at 98 points located 200 meters apart and laid out in hexagons in the Paint Creek Unit of the state forest.
“I would wait and listen for 10 minutes at each of the points, recording all of the species of birds I heard in my notebook,” Grabau said. “Many hexes weren’t located on paths either, so it was a lot of time-consuming, hard work.”
Grabau was recently awarded the Iowa Academy of Science’s Myrle Burk Scholarship for his efforts inside and outside the classroom. He enjoyed the opportunity to explore the park and found that experience as rewarding as his bird research.
“We were able to explore properties that were newly acquired by the DNR that a lot of people haven’t had access to yet,” Skrade agreed. “Hiking around the Driftless Area in northeast Iowa is beautiful. We are studying species that are of conservation concern, and there is a need to understand what is happening to these birds. This project helps the DNR and many other agencies, and it gives students an opportunity to learn field skills and conduct research.”
After logging the final habitat measurements and analyzing data, Skrade and Grabau recently presented their findings at The Wildlife Society’s 23rd Annual Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. Following the presentation, Skrade noted his student researcher received positive feedback from a number of wildlife professionals in attendance. This additional information will be utilized by Grabau to develop an even stronger senior project.
“Everyone we talked to was especially impressed by the number of Cerulean Warblers we have found in northeast Iowa, and they each wanted to know what we’ve planned for the future,” Skrade said. “Our next step is to start banding birds so we can identify individuals, and track population demographics and movements.”
As the winter months approached, Skrade and Grabau were eagerly anticipating next spring and the opportunity to flock to their research area, with backpacks, notepads and binoculars in hand.