Warbler (For Matt Katz's story)

The Blackburnian Warbler is one of the species at the focus of Matthew Toenies' research.

One of life’s biggest challenges is turning your passions into your profession, and this may be especially difficult if you happen to be interested in things like hunting and fishing.

For bird-watching enthusiast Matt Toenies, that path led him to pursue a master’s degree in ecology.

“Growing up in rural Minnesota, I spent a lot of time outside in the woods and wetlands around our house,” Toenies said. “I also had an interest in drawing animals from a very young age.”

Eventually, Toenies got a hummingbird feeder for his birthday, which “sparked [his] interest” in birds, birding and wildlife conservation.

“Like a lot of birders, I’m very drawn to the rare, unique, or hard to find species, and ones that are being pushed in the direction of extinction,” Toenies said. “I have spent a lot of time birding during travel to various places, including Australia and most recently Spain.”

Toenies did his undergraduate work at the University of Minnesota in Crookston. He is an active member of the Wildlife Society, which is how he got onto Penn State’s radar.

“I led a quiz bowl team and we won the national quiz bowl in Milwaukee,” Toenies said.

Dr. David Miller, associate professor of wildlife population ecology, went a bit further and said Toenies “basically won it singlehandedly.”

Miller said he was immediately interested and discussed the possibility of doing graduate research here at Penn State.

“He was extremely qualified,” Miller said. “Not only was he a great student, but when he got here, he already knew all of the eastern bird calls.”

Before long, Toenies was in the ecology master’s program.

“Being in the ecology program here has enabled me to look at conservation issues from an ecological perspective, which is critical,” Toenies said. His research connects his love of birding with a need to preserve biodiversity, by examining how an invasive species is changing our landscape.

In an unusual role reversal, a certain species of insect is now controlling the livelihood of a multitude of bird species, causing big changes to some forest ecosystems on the east coast.

The Hemlock Wooly Adelgid is an invasive insect species that was brought to the United States from East Asia by ships during the 1950s. The insect has been causing problems because it feeds on hemlock trees, and has steadily been wiping out entire sections of forest.

“We found about five or six species of birds that are really strongly associated with hemlock trees during the breeding season,” Toenies said. “[This is] likely due to the fact that they have a unique structure that provides really good habitat for the birds.”

To conduct the research, Toenies is doing field observation work, comparing his observations to data from before the arrival of the Wooly Adelgid. Observations include the condition of the hemlock stands before and after the arrival of the invasive insect as well as counts of the presence or absence of bird species.

“Basically we’re finding what we would’ve expected in terms of which species are being lost and which species are moving in,” Toenies said. “We saw a big decline in those [hemlock-associated] species.”

The hemlock associated species that are being observed specifically are the Acadian Flycatcher, Hermit Thrush, Black-Throated Green Warbler, Black Burning Warbler and the Blue-Headed Vireo. “As a group those 5 species showed a pretty strong decline,” Toenies said.

As the hemlock trees lose their needles as a result, more light is let into the forest floor, creating new opportunities for growth. This has caused species with a preference for forest-edge or shrubby type habitat to move into these forests, Toenies said.

Some of the edge species that saw increases were the Blue Jay and the Brown-headed Cowbird, Toenies said. This is significant because Blue Jays are nest predators and Brown-headed Cowbirds are nest parasites, presenting increased challenges for species already present in these forests.

“What we’re seeing so far is this transition from this patchwork landscape with unique forest types, we’re losing the hemlock stands and it’s going to be replaced with deciduous stands or mixed-hardwoods and conifers,” Toenies said. This will continue without active management.

“So far, as far as stopping it on a large scale, there is not anything promising that I know of,” Toenies said.

Currently, research is being done on biological controls that can be used, such as planting new tree types or releasing a species in the area that will prey on the Wooly Adelgid. Another potential solution includes finding a similar tree type, such as spruces or western hemlock to replace the hemlock vanishing in eastern forests, but these have their own drawbacks.

While the project originally started in the Delaware Water Gap recreation area on the border of Pennsylvania and New Jersey they are expanding their analysis to other sites in Connecticut, Virginia and West Virginia.

“We are seeing a pretty similar pattern across those other sites,” Toenies said.

Ultimately, this research is centralized on a loss of biodiversity and the resounding effects on the ecosystem.

“With anything related to ecology, you don’t really understand the potentially far-reaching effects of taking pieces out of the system,” Toenies said. “The interactions between species and their environments is so complex that you can’t take something out, like an entire species, and fully understand the effects of it.”

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