Helping Birds: Ann Arbor city ornithologist makes a difference

Deaver "Dea" Armstrong is the Ornithologist for the City of Ann Arbor. Photo: © City of Ann Arbor Natural Areas Preservation

Deaver “Dea” Armstrong is the Ornithologist for the City of Ann Arbor. Photo: © City of Ann Arbor Natural Areas Preservation

This is the first installment in a Michigan Audubon Society feature series about outstanding Michigan people in the world of birds and birding.

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By Howard Meyerson

Deaver Armstrong recalls the news she got in 1996.  A volunteer told her there were Bobolinks in the hayfields around the Ann Arbor landfill.

It was an exciting discovery. Bobolink numbers had been dwindling for years.

The black and buff birds breed in open grassy sites like hayfields in spring. Their decline in Michigan and across North America is the result of a changing landscape, the loss of grassland habitat along with predation, flooding and nest exposure, according to experts who have studied them.

Two weeks later, Armstrong the city ornithologist for Ann Arbor, and the only city ornithologist in the state, recalls:  “We went back (to the site) and oh my god, they had cut everything down. There was only one forlorn bobolink in that field.”

The fields had been mowed by the local farmer that cuts them in exchange for free hay. He unwittingly had destroyed the nests.

As Armstrong relates the story sitting in a comfy chair in the living room of the historic Leslie House at the Leslie Science and Nature Center in Ann Arbor, she is animated and energetic, a petite blond who gesticulates with her hands when she talks.

Armstrong excitedly recounted approaching her boss, Dave Borneman, the city’s Natural Areas Preservation program manager, to see what could be done. She had gone to him suggesting something novel, that early season mowing be delayed. The birds nest in May. Waiting until summer to cut hay would give them a chance.

“We own the property, why not delay it until after the nesting season,” Armstrong had suggested. “The single biggest problem that affects bobolinks nesting is getting their

Bobolinks began nesting successfully when hayfield mowing was delayed. Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service.

Bobolinks began nesting successfully when hayfield mowing was delayed. Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service.

nests mowed down.”

Borneman, a practical man who knows the value of good conservation practices, was uncertain.  “Well maybe one field,” Armstrong recalls him saying.

That wasn’t good enough for Armstrong, a determined woman who grew up loving birds and who pursued a career to work with them.

“I said ‘uh-uh.’ The farmers and others that have cut them down have won every other year until now. Why don’t we do them all,” Armstrong recounted with characteristic passion.

Two years later, Borneman agreed. New contracts were signed. Mowing would start in July after the nesting season.

The decision would prove beneficial for birds on five parcels totaling 300 acres. Within a few years, 12 to 15 pairs of bobolinks were nesting where previously none had been successful.

“They just came in. It worked out pretty great,” Armstrong said.

Those hayfields were just the beginning. Delayed mowing was also implemented on the grassy landfill caps.  That effort that was not quite as productive, but the new acreage did draw a few birds, and now they provide habitat that didn’t exist before.

Armstrong and Borneman then went to work on the Ann Arbor Airport, where 125 acres were mowed early in the season.  They got airport officials to delay mowing certain

Life for Meadlowlarks also improved when mowing was delayed until after nesting season. Photo: Dominic Sherony, Wikimedia Commons

Life for Meadlowlarks also improved when mowing was delayed until after nesting season. Photo: Dominic Sherony, Wikimedia Commons

parcels there, which proved fortuitous for nesting Meadowlarks, Grasshopper Sparrows and Bobolinks, according to Armstrong.

“We picked up 20 nesting pair of Bobolinks.  That’s pretty awesome she said. “That’s a population and it also provides habitat for Savannah Sparrows.

Caleb Putnam, Michigan’s Important Bird Area coordinator, said that while some will argue that grassland birds need conservation on a massive scale, the effort has to start somewhere.

“Given that grassland birds had experienced failures at those sites before, hers is a valuable contribution,” Putnam said. “The program at the airport is just fantastic.  During the migration those are places are key for songbirds.”

Armstrong loves her life as a city ornithologist. A day on the job may have her out surveying city parks and natural areas for birds, coordinating volunteers who help collect data, organizing a volunteer potluck or entering the data from their observations. The data, she hopes to eventually add to eBird a data base maintained by the Cornell Lab for Ornithology.  Armstrong works with city leaders and planners. She also leads birding trips for the city and for Washtenaw Audubon, where she is a member.

“When I first started, I wanted to get a handle on birds in every park, those that are there during the breeding season and the occasional migrants,” Armstrong said.

Her survey efforts identified 219 bird species at city parks and natural areas, 125 of which breed there. Common finds include American Robins, Downy Woodpeckers, Chickadees and Swamp Sparrows. But there are special birds too, like Ovenbirds, Hooded Warblers, Henslow’s Sparrows, a state endangered bird, and Wood Thrushes.

“The Hooded Warbler was unexpected,” Armstrong said. “We’re at the northern end of its range. But we now have four singing males in the Marshall Nature Area.”

“What Dea does is very important,” Dave Borneman said. “Before we start any management at the parks, we want to know what birds are there. We have at times modified management because of the birds she found.

“We couldn’t have done that without Dea and the corps of volunteers she manages. She is energetic and passionate about what she does. It’s a real gift she brings to her job.”

Things to know about Deaver Armstrong:

  • Origins: Born in Rock Hill, S.C.  Grew up in Richmond, Va. Her mother gardened. Her father played golf.
  • Early Love of Birds: As a child she loved looking at birds, painting bird models, playing bird lotto games. She rescued birds that fell out of trees.
  • Best Work: Her two sons Drew, 31 and Russ, 28.
  • Education: BA in Biology and Chemistry from the University of Virginia, 1972; the first class that graduated women from the university. MA in Avian Ecology from the University of Michigan, 1998.
  • Her Bliss: “When someone else gets off on seeing a bird.”
  • Birding Travels: Belize, Costa Rica, South Africa and Greece. She visited Uganda and Rwanda in December 2012.
  • Birding Politics: She has eaten doves more than once and believes hunters and birders should be best friends.  “Both groups want the same thing.”
  • Enjoys: Movies, jazz vocalists, bicycling, hiking and kayaking.
  • Favorite Food: Bacon
  • Big Secret: She is a former national master bridge player and is itching to play again.

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Written for the Michigan Audubon Society Connecting Birds and People Series.

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