2020 Birders Meeting — Presentation Abstracts & Speaker Bios

Peter Marra, PhD, Georgetown University

Peter Marra earned a Ph.D. from Dartmouth College in 1998 and an M.S. from Louisiana State University, in 1989 and is Director of the Georgetown Environmental Initiative, Laudato Si' Professor in Biology and the Environment, and Professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy. Marra recently moved to Georgetown University after a 20-year career at the Smithsonian Institution, most recently as Director of the Migratory Bird Center. 

His research in conservation ecology is both fundamental and applied, and emphasizes connecting events throughout the annual and life cycles of animals to understand how complex interactions drive the ecology, evolution and conservation of species. Marra has authored over 225 papers including a recent widely-discussed study in Science magazine on the loss of nearly one-third of bird populations (2.9 billion birds) in North America over the last 50 years. Marra also co-edited the frequently cited book, Birds of Two Worlds, and recently published a second book, Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer.

Presentation Abstract: "The Epic Migrations of Birds"

Migration is one of the most engaging phenomena of the animal world and one epitomized by birds. Migratory birds are the Olympiads of the natural world—traveling extreme distances, flying at night in flocks of tens of thousands of individuals, and moving through treacherous terrain with untold obstacles threatening their every move. Today, over 50% of North America’s migratory species are declining at unprecedented rates—and for most of these species we don’t know why. Marra will take us on a hemispheric journey to discover the unknown migrations of the birds, explaining the latest technologies used for tracking and why it’s up to us to uncover the secrets of their biology to protect these marvelous species.


Mariamar Gutierrez Ramirez, PhD candidate, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Mariamar Gutierrez Ramirez is a PhD candidate and Ford Foundation Fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She has worked with migratory birds since 2002 across Central America and the U.S., and has extensive experience with field protocols for the study of breeding, wintering, and migrating birds. She has led the bird banding efforts for the UMass Amherst - Integrative Environmental Physiology Lab for 4 years. She has experience training students and volunteers in bird monitoring techniques, including safe handling of passerine birds following the standards of the North American Banding Council. For her graduate research, she works primarily in coastal Florida studying the spring stopover ecology of long-distance migratory birds. Mariamar has a B.S. in Biology from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua, and holds a M.Sc. in Natural Resources from Delaware State University.

Presentation Abstract: "Ecology of Migrant Songbirds"

Millions of migratory birds fly non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico from the wintering grounds in Mexico, Central, and South America to the breeding grounds in North America. Songbirds complete their amazing journeys through a series of long flights, punctuated by stopover periods when birds rest and rebuild depleted energy reserves. Birds use fat and lean mass to power migratory flight, which is especially critical during and after crossing ecological barriers, such as the Gulf of Mexico. Researchers from the UMass Amherst Integrative Environmental Physiology Lab have been using traditional field research and state-of-the-art technology, such as the Motus Wildlife Tracking Network, to evaluate the relationship between body condition and migratory decisions of birds that have completed a trans-Gulf of Mexico flight. During this program, we will explore how birds fare after crossing the Gulf of Mexico in spring and how this may impact their timing and arrival to the breeding grounds.


Kevin Powers, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

Kevin Powers is currently a member of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council where he conducts research on seabirds, primarily Great Shearwaters. He is also a member of Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program Advisory Committee. He retired in 2013 after careers as a scientist and engineer. In 1976 he worked for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Anchorage, AK cataloging coastal seabird breeding colonies on the Alaskan Peninsula as part of an Outer Continental Shelf Biological Assessment Study prior to the completion the Alaskan pipeline. He was a scientist at the Manomet Bird Observatory (1976-1983) in Manomet, MA, where he studied the distribution and abundance of marine birds on the continental shelf of the Northwest Atlantic. He has authored scientific publications on the distribution, abundance, and the ecological role of marine birds in the northwest Atlantic.

Presentation Abstract: "Unraveling the Mysteries of Great Shearwaters Off the New England Coast"

A large variety of marine animals migrate in the oceanic environment, sometimes aiming at specific targets such as oceanic islands or offshore productive areas. Thanks to recent technological developments, various techniques have become available to track marine migrants, even when they move in remote or inhospitable areas. Seabirds cover the longest distances amongst marine animals, sometimes undertaking interhemispheric flights. I will provide a brief overview of different techniques now deployed to track birds in ocean environments with published examples of transoceanic migrations. Then focus on current research involving satellite-tracking of Great Shearwaters (Ardenna gravis) in the Atlantic Ocean conducted by the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.


Margaret Rubega, PhD, University of Connecticut

Margaret Rubega is an Professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, as well as Curator of Birds in the Biodiversity Collections, at the University of Connecticut. She is also Connecticut's State Ornithologist. Research in her lab addresses questions in avian conservation, ecology and evolution mechanistically, integrating tools from functional morphology, biomechanics, physiology, and animal behavior as necessary to produce explanations for why birds look, live and act as they do. Chasing Chimney Swifts since 2012, she hopes you won't call the cops if you notice her staring at your chimney through binoculars.

Presentation Topic: "The Disappearance of an Almost-Invisible Bird—Where Do All the Chimney Swifts Go?"

A Chimney Swift may be the least-visible common bird in North America. A nearly uniform sooty brown all over, it flies high and fast, won’t come to your bird feeders, sits nowhere that you can photograph it, and glues its nest out of sight to the inside of chimneys with spit. Partners in Flight estimates their North American population at about 8 million birds, but classifies them as a "Common Species in Steep Decline"—birds which are still numerous, but whose populations have declined by 50% or more during the past 40 years. Research by UConn, Connecticut DEEP, and others has shown that conventional explanations fail to account for this population decline on the breeding ground, suggesting that the answer lies in migration or on the wintering ground. However, information about where those 8 million birds might be in the non-breeding season is strangely sparse. Stable isotope work provides some clues about where the birds go, and where all the lost birds may have gone.


Sean Williams, PhD, College of the Holy Cross

Sean Williams is a Visiting Assistant Professor at College of the Holy Cross. He grew up in South Boston, where his childhood passion for observing birds led to a PhD from Michigan State University on antbird flocking behavior in Peru. At Holy Cross, he teaches Ornithology, Comparative Vertebrate Morphology, and Evolution. Currently, his research encompasses the interaction between birds, ticks, and disease in anthropogenically disturbed versus natural habitats. In addition, he is investigating the physical and biological factors that lead to avian vagrancy. Outside of the classroom, Sean enjoys searching for relatively poorly known taxa in Massachusetts.

Presentation Topic: "Birding During Migration"

It's mid-May, and you have the full week to search for migratory birds. There is a seemingly unlimited selection of locations, and yet you can only choose one hotspot per day. In order to find the maximum number of avian migrants, it is critical to understand the physical and biological forces that lead to the spatial and temporal distributions of migrants. In this talk, we will explore the broad- and fine-scale patterns of migratory birds in order to help you make these important decisions for birding during spring and fall migration seasons.