IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
Guess what? It’s spring. And now, depending on where you’re isolating yourself, you may not be feeling it. I understand. Maybe you’re in a dense city, or you’re just not getting out to your usual spring strolling spots. Well, thankfully, some of our listeners and friends of the show have come to your rescue.
SPEAKER 1: I’ll show you what the birds sound like on my porch. It rained last night, so they’re extra happy. I’m hearing frogs. They’re back.
SPEAKER 2: From a distance, when you see bluebonnets, it’s pretty fun, because it really does look like water. You just have that blue sheen. It almost looks like an oasis or a mirage.
SPEAKER 3: My favorite sound of the spring is the gray treefrog.
SPEAKER 4: Whistle tones by what I believe is a Steller’s jay, recorded on March 11.
SPEAKER 5: The return of spring is such a welcome thing, especially this year.
IRA FLATOW: Special thanks to SciFri friends [? Kathleen ?] Davis, Ryan Mandelbaum, and Andrea [? Delonga ?] [? Maya, ?] plus listeners Bethany from Michigan, Doug from Texas, Melissa from Pennsylvania, and Barbara from California. Thank you all for your contributions on the Science Friday VoxPop app. Plus, the birds in my own backyard. Thank you.
And one aspect of spring that’s in particular full bloom right now– and no, I’m not talking about the flowers– are the birds. Yes, it’s spring migration, and the birds are wending their way from places far south to their summer breeding and feeding grounds. Best of all, they’re likely just flying past your window. They come to you.
For more on why birding is the perfect activity for physical distancing, producer Christie Taylor talked to two birders earlier this week– Atlanta birder and educator Jason Ward, host of the YouTube series Birds of North America, and Kari Hagenow, land steward for the Nature Conservancy of Wisconsin’s Door County Preserve.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Welcome to Science Friday, both of you.
KARI HAGENOW: Thank you. Thanks for having us.
JASON WARD: Thank you for having me.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Jason, let’s start with you. You’re based in Atlanta. How is the birding right now?
JASON WARD: Right now, in the entire Southeast, birding is at an all-time high. It is a time where approximately 20 billion birds are starting to make their way from South America northward. Luckily for us, they visit the Southeast first. We are right on the cusp of peak spring migration.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Kari, you’re based in Wisconsin. Are you seeing that spring migration as well?
KARI HAGENOW: Yeah. We’re seeing just the start of our spring migration. That big movement of birds that Jason was talking about in the southeastern United States will hit our neck of the woods around the beginning and middle of May. We patiently await that. But in the meantime, we have a lot of our early spring migrants that maybe overwintered in Atlanta or the area. Some of those are just starting to trickle in to their breeding grounds here in Wisconsin.
Some of our earliest are, of course, the American robins. Those, here, are the heralds of spring for us. But following not too far after them, we see things like eastern phoebes, which is a type of flycatcher, and then the first of our warblers, which is the yellow-rumped warbler, which people herald as an early sign of spring, seeing as it’s our first warbler species to arrive.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Oh, that’s beautiful.
Jason, what about you? You get to go out to the park still? Are you seeing anything that you love?
JASON WARD: It’s interesting, because seeing where Kari is, as far as the birds that she’s starting to see, we’re starting to see those birds leave. Yellow-rumped warblers are starting to become a lot more vocal down here. They spend the winter in the Southeast, so we see them all throughout winter.
Look. We love birds. I love all of the birds. But around April, we’re starting to get tired of seeing yellow-rumped warblers all the time. Now that they’re starting to leave and go further north, it allows for other neotropical birds to join the party. We’re starting to see prairie warblers. I saw about three of them today. We’re starting to see northern parula, Louisiana water thrush. Chimney swifts are back as well, and all of the swallows have returned. Soon enough, the wood thrush will follow, and all of the rest of the migrants shortly afterwards.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Why is now the time for new people, new birders to get out enjoying them, or stay put and enjoy them, as may be the case for many of us.
KARI HAGENOW: For us here in Wisconsin, with this trickle in of early migrants, it’s not as overwhelming as that big flush of birds that we’ll see in early and mid-May. So you can pick up on one or two new birds every few days, and that makes it, maybe, less discouraging or frustrating, when there’s so many birds that you don’t know how to deal with there.
The other thing that I’d say is that we’re all cooped up in a unique situation here, sticking to our own backyards for birding. That can be to our advantage in that the habitat you have in your yard might only attract a certain amount or certain kind of species. Again, you have fewer birds to start with that you’re ID’ing.
JASON WARD: That was an excellent point about the fact that everyone is home. If you are seeing something in your yard, and you want to know what it is– I know, myself, I’m a big-time contributor to the Facebook group, What’s This Bird? That group has over 40,000 members. How it works is, you post a photo of a bird, or an audio clip, and someone will identify it in about 10 seconds for you. That’s how quick the response is there.
In addition to that, to piggyback off of the everyone staying home thing, the great thing about it is, no matter where your home is, there are birds there. That’s the beauty of birds in comparison to the other types of animals out there. No matter where you are in the US, or in Europe, or all over the globe, there are birds around your backyard, in your front porch. Or you can see them out your window if you live in a tall building. You don’t have to travel in order to see them. They will come to you. And then you can do things to make sure that they stick around for a little longer as well.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I have another question for both of you. Our listener Lillian sent this note on our Science Friday VoxPop app.
LILLIAN: We’ve had several days of rain here, and I was getting really down. And yesterday morning, I got up, and while it was still overcast, it wasn’t actively raining. But the way I knew that spring was coming for sure was the birds. The birds were out there singing up a storm, and it made me feel so happy.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Jason, why do birds bring so much joy to people?
JASON WARD: Because they’re the best animals on the planet. I think it’s the fact, especially during this time of year, they’re constantly putting on a show. Some of that is because the males have to. We’re bearing witness to this show that these birds are putting on. Their plumage is perfectly constructed, right? They look their best, and they’re singing this wide array of these beautiful songs, and some of them even have little, funny displays that they do along with the songs that they sing.
Then it’s the flight part about it as well. It’s the fact that these birds are able to achieve this magical thing such as flight, and no matter where you are in the country, you know that this prairie warbler just traveled right across the Gulf of Mexico and landed in your backyard. So there’s a magical quality to birds in general, no matter what time of year it is.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: The birds can travel even though we can’t, which is one way of traveling, in some ways.
JASON WARD: That’s true. We can live vicariously through them.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Kari, what about you? What brings you joy about birds?
KARI HAGENOW: How do I top that summary that Jason just gave? I would say, talking about our perspective in the Midwest here, birds can herald the change of seasons for us. I think, right now, that’s a big source of joy in that we’ve survived another long Wisconsin winter. The robins are back, and they’re going to bring warm sunshine with them. For us, that’s one big thing.
Otherwise, I would say, when I’m out with people who are beginning birders or who are unfamiliar with birds, just seeing the looks on their faces when you show them a bird that they didn’t even know existed. We have more than 400 species that can be seen in the state. Some people only know three of them, and realizing that there is a whole wealth of diversity, color, courtship patterns, dances, and all of these things that these birds do– it just opens up a whole new world to you that you didn’t know existed.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Are there any specific birds you haven’t seen yet that you’re really hoping come through your yard this year, Kari?
KARI HAGENOW: We have not, at my house, seen the first of the warblers yet, so I’m patiently awaiting our yellow-rumped warblers. We see anywhere between 20 and 28 or 29 species of warblers come through the small area of Wisconsin where I live. Every one is more beautiful than the next. He mentioned northern parula before, which is one that I will be anxiously awaiting as well, of our warblers that breeds up here.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Jason, what about you?
JASON WARD: I’m a hardcore birder, and I have seen a decent number of birds. As far as birds that I haven’t seen yet that I am hoping to see, there’s this one bird that has been evading me no matter where I go. I’m always seconds or minutes away from someone else just seeing it, and that bird is the golden eagle.
Golden eagles don’t really stick to the Southeast, pretty much. So when someone does see them, it is a pretty big deal. The only bad part about that is, golden eagles don’t really stay still for a long period of time. So if someone sees them, the chances are that that bird is hundreds of miles away the next day. Occasionally, it’s good to, sure, look into the shrubs, look into the trees. But sometimes it’s good to just watch the skies and see what may fly over.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I have a question, Jason, for you. I know you’re someone who goes out birding with other people quite often, and you’re an educator. Is it harder now to bird the way you would want to at this point?
JASON WARD: It is. It is. There’s something about the sense of community for me that really makes birding special. I got into birding, of course, for the birds, but I stay, and I am enriched, often, because of the community. So not being able to visit birding festivals or lead birding trips locally has been pretty tough.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way. I’ve turned to social media to get that aspect up and running. Instead of physically leading a group, I’m virtually leading a group. I’m going live on Twitter or on Instagram, and I am allowing the viewer at home to bird with me. I have a phone adapter on my phone that I can put to my spotting scope, and you can see a bird full-screen, really large, just as if you’re looking at it with your binoculars. It’s the next best thing, close to leading an actual, physical bird walk.
KARI HAGENOW: Jason, that is really cool. And maybe I’ll also add that if you start exploring online, there are many, many nest cams and bird cams where you can get up-close and personal looks at some of these birds’ nesting and rearing their young. For example, our university here in Green Bay, Wisconsin, has a cam right now that is on a pair of peregrine falcons that is nesting on the library of the university. Day by day, they watch them. They’ve got a few eggs in their nest now, and it’s really an exciting way to connect with those birds over the internet and virtually.
JASON WARD: I’m going to make sure that I watch that, because that’s the best bird ever on the planet. So I’m going to do that right after we sign off here.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Pausing to remind everyone that this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m Christie Taylor. We’re talking about birds and birding in the time of physical distancing.
I have a bit of a curveball for you, and that’s one of my favorite spring sounds, which is not a bird. It is these peeper frogs and chorus frogs, too. Someone actually sent me this sound from Wisconsin. Thanks to Nick Miller from, also, the Nature Conservancy.
Are there any other nature sounds and sights, besides birds, that you are missing out on experiencing right now that comes with birding, usually, for you?
KARI HAGENOW: I do love the spring peepers, and for us, wood frogs have just chimed in up here.
One of the things that goes hand-in-hand with birding for me is, really, our spring ephemerals, our wildflowers that are coming out at this time of the year and, again, give you this sense of renewal and peace after a long winter. For us, some of those trout lilies or marsh marigold are just starting to come out. Our hepatica, which are these small, delicate flowers– those really bring that sense of spring for me, when we have these really gorgeous blooms of spring ephemerals.
JASON WARD: The Southeast is known for these mature old-growth forests, and when you’re deep into those forests looking for birds, you often are greeted with continuous, drowning sound of cicadas. That’s something that I’m probably going to miss a little bit on an everyday basis by not being able to visit certain kinds of forest here in the Southeast.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: In the last time that we have, any last advice for people who want to enjoy birds right now in whatever way that they can?
KARI HAGENOW: Birding can seem overwhelming if you’re a beginning birder. But like I said, there are so many resources online, people who are available to help you. I will give one last plug for something called e-bird, which is a great way to record your bird observations. But it’s also a great way, if you’re a beginning birder, to see what other people are seeing right around you and to pull up a list of birds, again, that have actually been seen right there. Tune in to some of these resources that are available, and don’t get discouraged if you can’t ID something or if binoculars are hard to use for the first time.
JASON WARD: I totally agree. I think that, in addition to that, remember that there’s no right way to go birding. As long as you are birding and having fun, you’re doing it the right way. It’s as simple as that.
In addition to that, if you’re getting cabin fever and you really want to get the experience as if you are traveling and exploring, I highly recommend certain fun Facebook groups, like Google Street View Birding, where individuals in that group basically comb Google Street View, and they try to find birds that have been captured by accident on those cameras. There’s a running list and tally of all of the birds that have been seen in that group, and it’s interesting to challenge yourself and teleport yourself to a different country to try to find one of the target birds for the day.
There’s also Fantasy Birding out there as well for those who like the competitive aspect. It’s relatively new, but it’s also growing in popularity. And then, of course, shameless plug– binge-watch Birds of North America, of course. All 20 episodes are available on YouTube and on topic.com. You’ll be catapulted right into a birding experience led by me, the host.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thanks so much for being with us today.
KARI HAGENOW: Thank you.
JASON WARD: Thank you very much.
IRA FLATOW: Producer Christie Taylor talking to Atlanta-based birder and educator Jason Ward and land steward Kari Hagenow, based in De Pere, Wisconsin, earlier this week. If you want more sights and sounds of spring, check out our website. We’ve got photos and more at ScienceFriday.com/springsounds.
After the break, from the birds to the beautiful buzzing bumblebees– why you should look for native pollinators in your yard.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’ve been talking about the birds, but of course, what about the bees? Bumblebee researcher Hollis Woodard at the University of California Riverside normally spends her spring catching queens so she can study their life cycles. In the time of coronavirus, though, she’s still finding ways to appreciate these native pollinators, and she thinks you can, too. SciFri producer Christie Taylor caught up with her earlier this week.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Hey, Hollis. Welcome back to Science Friday.
HOLLIS WOODARD: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: What are the bumblebees up to right now?
HOLLIS WOODARD: It depends a little bit on where you are, but I’ll give you the report from California.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thank you.
HOLLIS WOODARD: Things are starting to bloom here. One of the key plants that the bumblebees love here is manzanita. It’s up at slightly higher elevations than where we are, down in Riverside. But it starts to bloom this time of year, and bumblebee queens start to come out and forage on it. You can stand at a patch of blooming manzanita and just wait, and if you wait long enough, sometimes not that long at all, you’ll start to hear this pretty loud buzzing sound, and there are these huge queens that will fly in and start foraging on it. So it’s pretty special.
This will start to happen in other parts of the country at different times. We’re pretty early here in California. In other parts of the US, it’s probably not happening yet. And the plants that the bumblebees might visit will be different, but in every region of the US, there are these early-blooming plants that the bumblebee queens will visit. They’re visiting these to get food resources so that they can start their nest and feed their offspring.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And you’re not actually able to be up there right now, watching these bees, right?
HOLLIS WOODARD: I’m homebound here in Riverside, but I do have a student that lives up in the mountains where manzanita is, and she’s starting to see bees coming out and foraging on it.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I assume your research has had to adapt a little bit to this time of isolation and staying at home. What are you having to do now?
HOLLIS WOODARD: Well, we’re pretty much completely out of the lab. We’re only allowed to finish up a few things in the lab. Everything’s moved online. We’re analyzing a lot of data, reading papers, and doing things like that. And then our project that we started last year, where we go all over California and collect bumblebees to see how trends differ across the state– that’s something we’re not able to do this year.
But one thing one of my students is doing, the student lives up in the mountains– she’s going to be collecting some queens and rearing them in her basement so that she can get some colonies going and try to run some simplified experiments with these wild bees.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So she’s going to be quarantining with bees in her home. Are they good company?
HOLLIS WOODARD: Yeah, they’re super fun. There’s a long history of people catching wild bumblebees and rearing them in their home. Some of the best early bumblebee work involved that kind of practice.
There are a lot of things you can learn by catching these queens. And if you get the queens, which are only out early in the season, you can put them in a box, keep them warm and toasty, and give them the food that they need. They will start a nest in your boxes, so you can study all kinds of things about their behavior and their nesting biology by doing this.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I know that we are facing a global period of threat to pollinators of all kinds, including native bees. What kind of help can research like this give them?
HOLLIS WOODARD: Well, when it comes to bumblebees, one of the things that we know the least about is this early nesting stage. We think that a lot of bumblebee queens overwinter. They have to live through the winter, typically underground, in a state of diapause, and then they come out in the spring, and they have to start their nests. We actually know very little about the diapause period, but also about this period when they’re starting to get their nest going.
People who collect queens and study things about their early nesting biology can really contribute to our understanding of a stage that we think is really important– well, we know it’s very important for bumblebee survival. We think it’s one of the stages where a lot of queens fail, because at this stage, they’re trying to do a lot of different things. They’re out foraging. They’re getting their nests going. They’re becoming reproductive and laying eggs, and it’s a lot for a bee to pull off on her own.
Later on, she’ll have helpers to help her do a lot of this stuff, but at this early nesting stage, these queens are single moms, and they’re trying to do a lot of work on their own. We think it, unfortunately, is a time when a lot of bumblebees end up failing in that endeavor, and we lose a lot of genetic diversity, for example, from the populations.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: You said the bumblebees are on their own, trying to do everything for themselves right now. No community. That feels very familiar to me right now.
HOLLIS WOODARD: It totally does. The bumblebees are definitely a metaphor for us right now.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: We were talking about birdwatching earlier, and one of the things I’m really wondering is how we can also do some beewatching this time of year. Is that something that you have advice for?
HOLLIS WOODARD: I would say this is a great pastime for people to engage in now if they haven’t before. Or if you have, one of the great things you can do is plant things in your yard. If you build it, they will come. If you plant things that bumblebees, or other bees, or other pollinators like to visit, they will come visit your yard. You can bring them to you by planting the food resources that they need. So it’s really a win-win, honestly. You get to see them, and you can help them out by giving them some food resources.
It depends on where you are, what you might want to plant. There are some plants that grow locally, and if you plant those, you might get some really unusual native local species. But you can also plant different types of plants that are more generally attractive to pollinators, and you get all kinds of things visiting those.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And you say different bees. It’s not just one bumblebee we’re talking about, is it?
HOLLIS WOODARD: Oh, yeah, no. There are about 250 species in the world. Here in Riverside, I’ve seen four different species, but we’re a hotter, more desert area. If you live in cooler, more northern parts of the US, you can get a lot more species. For example, across California, we find 25 species, especially more in the coastal areas and in the north. So you could get a lot of different bumblebee species, potentially, coming to visit you.
And then there are all the other bees. You’ll probably get honeybees almost no matter where you are. Those are non-native. But there are a lot of different types of native bee species, too, that you can attract. The general rule is, the more stuff you plant that’s bee-attractive, the more species you’ll probably see showing up.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Do you have a favorite bee species?
HOLLIS WOODARD: Well, bumblebees are my favorite. You already knew that. We get a species here, vosnesenskii, that’s really beautiful. It’s this mostly black bumblebee that has a little bit of yellow coloration. They’re just a very attractive bumblebee. I really like those.
I really like some of the more northern species that you find. I went to Alaska at one point and got to see some of the species up in the Arctic tundra. There’s a subgenus of bumblebee that lives up there that–
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Wait. Bees in the Arctic tundra?
HOLLIS WOODARD: Well, bumblebees evolved in the Tibetan Plateau, we think, and they’re more cold-adapted. This is one of the things that’s really special about them. They can come out really early in the season, and they can live in really cold places. Bumblebees even live up in the high Arctic and in more northern areas than any other bee can exist.
So you get these giant bumblebees living up in the Arctic that are just beautiful. They’re huge, and they’re really pretty. They’ll fly around, and because it’s tundra, and there aren’t a lot of tall plants there, you can just see them zooming around the landscape.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: What do you love so much about bees that you would encourage other people to see and enjoy?
HOLLIS WOODARD: I love all insects, but bumblebees and other bees do a good job of helping people appreciate insects, I think, more than some people might otherwise. They fly around. They’re really charismatic. They visit flowers. They’ve captured people’s imaginations and hearts, I think, more than some other insect groups, even though these other insect groups might also be worthy of that. I think bumblebees and other bees are really good gateway insects for getting really excited about the little critters that live in your yard and elsewhere.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: What are you looking forward to, bee-wise, if you are able to go back into the field this summer?
HOLLIS WOODARD: We’re really hoping that we can still get out towards the end of the season. Bumblebees have a pretty long nesting season, so even if we miss the queens, which makes me very sad, we can still get out there and study workers, especially in higher-elevation places. We’re hoping to get out to the Sierras, to some of the high, montane areas, so that we can still see bumblebees out foraging and visiting flowers. And we can do some of the collections that we had hoped to do throughout the entire season maybe in August, maybe sooner if we’re really lucky.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thank you so much, Hollis, for being with us.
HOLLIS WOODARD: Yeah, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
IRA FLATOW: That was producer Christie Taylor talking to Hollis Woodard, assistant professor of Entomology at the University of California at Riverside.