Picture unspoiled wild forest, the type of place only animals and Boy Scouts feel at home. Now erase that image from your mind, and picture a power line right of way: one of those ruler-straight strips of utility poles that brutishly slash through the woods. Would anything choose that for a home?
“From a distance, they may not look like much. But when you get inside them, they are really incredible habitats,” says Matt Tarr, a wildlife biologist with the University of New Hampshire.
Tarr is spending the next two years studying how these right of ways serve as habitats for songbirds, whose numbers have been declining due to a squeeze on their traditional habitats. It turns out these clear-cuts of forest can make for an ideal nesting ground.
“We have groups of species of that really require these young forest conditions, and so that young forest condition is naturally created through disturbances,” says Tarr.
By disturbances, Tarr means wildfires, storms and flooding. In the modern world, we don’t let fires burn and we don’t have as many old-growth forests, which are more susceptible to windstorms. The result is a shortage of naturally occurring young forests.
But under these utility poles, that’s exactly what you’ll find: shrubby bushes and immature trees. They provide cover, and attract the insects that many songbirds feed on.
These aren’t really new habitats for these birds,” says Tarr. “It’s just the type of habitat they need, just created in a slightly different manner.”
Tarr and his team from UNH are trying to determine which species set up shop here for the spring and summer, making nests and reproducing. To get an accurate count, they use what are called mist nets, each measuring about forty feet long and twelve feet high.
“And so as the birds fly through this habitat, when they hit the net, they basically just fall down and get tangled in the pocket.”
At one of the twelve nets set up in the town of Stafford, a female Canada warbler finds herself tangled. Tarr works quickly to free it.
“I know, I know, I’m sorry,” he coos to the bird.
In just a minute, he’s got her loose. Tarr is a big man with a thick neck and shaved head, but he handles these birds like they’re made of crystal.
After appreciating her subtle beauty, Tarr hustles the bird to a central banding station, where Erica Holm, a graduate student, has her tools and instruments laid out on a folding table underneath a buzzing power line. The birds are weighed and measured and tagged, and then quickly released.
“Just long enough to record the information about the bird...age and sex,” she says. “So maybe like five-six minutes. Not very long. I’m about ready to let her go.”
In just a few hours, the team has already documented eighteen birds from six species, including song sparrow, prairie warbler, field sparrow, chestnut sided, and common yellow throat.
The research project comes with a $250,000 price tag, which is being picked up by grants, including some federal money and a larger chunk from the non-profit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. That group, it’s worth noting, receives some of its funding from Eversource, the power company that is seeking permission to build the controversial Northern Pass project. That project, of course, would blaze new utility right of ways in the state’s North Country.
While that may sound like a conflict of interest, Tarr says it’s not.
“I make it clear when I accept funding that I am not here to advocate for a project,” he says. “My goal as a wildlife biologist is to better understand how these rights of way and the habitat we study function as habitat for wildlife.”
And while it’s not perhaps the most beautiful habitat to us, to songbirds these right of ways may just be the next best thing to a natural young forest.