Introducing our 2019 Hubbard Fellows

Mary Parr (left) and Chelsea Forehead (right) are our 2019 Hubbard Fellows.

Back in early February, we brought in our next two Hubbard Fellows, the sixth class of that program. Chelsea Forehead and Mary Parr will be here for a full year, working on all aspects of conservation, including land stewardship, outreach, fundraising, and much more. Lately, they’ve been doing a lot of work with fire (as shown by the photos here…) They are also developing their own independent projects that will allow them to dig deeper into a particular area of interest and produce a product that will contribute to conservation. I am inspired and energized by every class of Fellows I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the past years, and this pair is no exception. You can read more about the Fellowship program here, and you’ll read some blog posts by both Mary and Chelsea throughout the upcoming year. For now, I’ll let the Fellows introduce themselves in their own words.

Chelsea Forehead:

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” was a question I answered with little certainty as a child. “I want to help people,” I would reply. Figuring out how exactly to best “help” was a quest that would take me through many learning landscapes and continues to this day. The first clue I discovered in my search for how to assist was found nestled in the text of my Earth Science book in middle school. Humans, it turned out, were biting the hand that feeds them. I realized that the best way to help, then, was to focus my efforts on protecting and repairing the seemingly doomed life force that sustains all people.

Having already developed a love for nature, I was easily enthused at the thought of such a task. The summers of my childhood in Nebraska were spent exploring the facets of nature found at lakes, campgrounds, and parks. The shoeboxes of treasures stashed in my closet were filled with the most perfect pinecones, oddly-lobed leaves, and rocks with flecks of mica found on my outdoor adventures. The need for conservation had occurred to just the right girl for the job.

While an undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln I realized just how many aspects of conservation there are. I chose to pursue the fascinating, but narrow path of ecological anthropology. The human component to conservation seemed like the most efficient route by which to bring my efforts to their intended recipient. While at UNL I completed majors in Anthropology, Environmental Studies, and Spanish. I reveled in learning about the ways in which people around the world interact with nature. A semester of sustainability courses in Costa Rica brought such interactions to life. I learned the importance of considering the needs of the surrounding community when attempting to solve problems facing an ecosystem. Ex-poachers of turtle eggs employed as ecotourism guides highlighted the potential for harmony between humans and nature when the needs of both are met. I graduated in 2012 feeling better prepared to join the army of conservationists.

In order to better understand the threats facing our planet’s ecosystems I set my sights on earning a Master of Science in biology. I familiarized myself with the floral communities found in prairies while investigating the effects of management techniques. A birder by hobby I gained field experience as a point count technician. I decided to focus my studies on grassland bird and in 2017 I joined the University of Nebraska-Omaha Lab of Avian Ecology as a graduate student.

Never forgetting the purpose of my quest, I made sure that the results of my thesis research would address a current need in conservation. Given the vast loss and fragmentation of prairie habitat I investigated a way that the value of remaining habitat might be increased for declining grassland songbird populations. From 2017-2018 I spent my summers searching for Dickcissel (Spiza americana) nests at Platte River Prairies. It was during those summers that I really became smitten with the prairie ecosystem. I spent hours walking through each parcel, tracking the movement of birds and being awestruck by the flora that surrounded me. Of the many habitats I had explored, only the prairie made me feel like I could really breathe. I wanted to be able to help the prairie breathe, too.

Despite all I had learned in school, I still felt that I hadn’t put theory into practice. Having talked with previous fellows over the past two summers I knew that the Hubbard Fellowship would incorporate experiences in research and management practices. The fellowship will also give me the chance to use my social science skills when learning about community outreach and engagement. And even beyond the opportunities afforded to me by the fellowship, I am giddy about the chance to work for The Nature Conservancy. I am simultaneously humbled and inspired to be working with and learning from such a talented group of conservationists. After a long, arduous journey through the forests of social science, the lagoon of seasonal field work, and the mountainous climb through graduate-level biology research I am so pleased to have figured out how it is I can help.

Chelsea and Mary at the Niobrara Valley Preserve last month. Photo by Amanda Hefner.
Chelsea (with the torch on the right) ignites Sandhills prairie at the Niobrara Valley Preserve last week.

Mary Parr:

Growing up in West Michigan, I have always loved the outdoors. My family and I spent many vacations camping around our pleasant peninsulas. My favorite memories were had on our frequent visits to Lake Michigan, body surfing on the waves and running down blow out dunes – often resulting in face plants in hot sand. Walking from the beach to the forested trails was like walking through succession in time as the landscape changed from sand to beach grass to aspen saplings to towering white pine, beech, and red oak. My dad, a landscape architect, would eloquently say the Latin names of everything we pointed to. As I grew, so did my fascination of nature and physical science.

I attended college at Grand Valley State University, Allendale MI, majoring in Natural Resource Management and a minor in Biology. I focused my courses in ecological restoration, ecology, and botany. Throughout school, I pursued any jobs and opportunities that interested me, which included urban green infrastructure, watershed education, horticulture, greenhouses, volunteer organizing, parks and recreation, conservation, and stewardship. Despite my enjoyment of all, I found my strongest interests were in ecological restoration and plant ecology. For those of you who are unfamiliar, ecological restoration is the activity of restoring ecological services and function to an area that is degraded, damaged, or destroyed. This path encapsulated my love of plants, ability to work outdoors, and fulfilled my personal mission to protect natural areas.

I began an internship with the Michigan Nature Association and spend nearly every weekend performing restoration and stewardship. I enjoyed the physical realities of stewardship as we mechanically removed invasive shrubs, chain sawed trees, and conducted controlled burns. Countless times I returned home filthy, exhausted, and seemingly perpetually covered in a poison ivy rash, but the gratification was worth it. While I enjoy the application of restoration, I also enjoy the theoretical, ecological mechanisms behind it. I assisted an ongoing research project of an experimental restoration of dry sand prairie. That’s right, Michigan has prairies! While I enjoy trees, I also enjoy the absence of them. Being a plant enthusiast, I was elated by the diversity of herbaceous material, and struck by the prairie’s resilience to disturbances.

Graduating in spring 2018, I followed my long-held desire to explore westward. I accepted a seasonal position working for the Nature Conservancy in northern Minnesota in the Tallgrass Aspen Parklands – a great intersection between great lakes flora and the great plains. I gained substantial experience with large scale land management and prescribed fire. It was indescribable to work remotely in a landscape of prairie.  

Working for TNC was an amazing experience that I wanted to continue. I loved the positive atmosphere of the organization and their determination to find solutions for both people and nature – a mission parallel to my own. Hearing of the ongoing efforts of the Nebraska Chapter and the Hubbard Fellowship, I knew this was a place I could grow! I was most attracted to the Chapter’s progressive views of managing land for biodiversity, which will prove essential in the face of climate change. I am very interested in their regimes using fire and grazing, and their applicability to local ranchers. Additionally, I admire the close connection between their research and land management as it speaks to the success of their regimes! 

I am utterly amazed by the amount of work being done across Nebraska by the Nature Conservancy. I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about their success and ongoing projects in water conservation, policy, urban greening, public outreach, and stewardship. I have felt immense support from the staff and look forward to the rest of this year!

Mary pauses for a photo during a prescribed fire at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.
First look at part of a bison herd at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. Photo by Amanda Hefner
Chelsea (left), Mary (center), and Olivia Schouten (2018 Fellow, now working for us as a stewardship technician) before a spring burn at the Platte River Prairies.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Olivia and the Snowbirds

This blog – text and photos – are by Olivia Schouten, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Olivia and her colleague Alex Brechbill will be wrapping up their year with us next week.  It’s been a fantastic year, and we will miss their thoughtful observations and good humor. 

Last month I got the chance to blabber about my love of November and autumn, but now I can talk about something I love about winter! We’ve actually had snow this year (I haven’t gotten much these last couple years living in Kansas), and while that’s not what I’m going to talk about, I do think the colder weather is what brought this particular piece of winter to my back patio.

I’m talking about snowbirds! Dark-eyed juncos and American tree sparrows to be exact. These little sparrows nest far to the north during the summer, and while they do come south for the winter, they stop just at the leading edge of the cold, sometimes not even reaching as far south as Kansas during warm winters. They can be found in mixed flocks pecking around on the ground, especially under bird feeders, for seeds throughout the colder months, twiting and seeting away.

One of the house sparrows I usually end up with feeding at my bird feeder, all fluffed up against the cold.

I mention these birds because they arrived on the Platte today (Dec. 4)! Or at least, that’s when I noticed them for the first time. I have a bird feeder set up just outside the kitchen windows, and I’ve been supplying the local birds with black oil sunflower seeds for a couple months now. The vast majority of visitors have been nonnative house sparrows, so imagine my delight when I noticed a little group of tree sparrows had stopped for a snack this morning! Shortly afterward, a small group of juncos joined them, and I knew immediately that winter had officially arrived.

An American tree sparrow searching the snow for seeds.  As a bird lover, it was very exciting to find them at the bird feeder this morning.
Dark-eyed juncos have a lot of personality, flittering around in large flocks and standing out against the snow.  White tail feathers flash every time they fly off.

While several species of birds certainly fly south for the winter, with all members of their species fleeing to Central or South America for warmer climes and plenty of food, you might be surprised at how many of our local birds actually stick it out. For example, robins can be found in most portions of their range year-round, and I’ve witnessed more than once a robin singing on especially warm winter days. Meadowlarks are another species that can actually be seen in much of their range for the entire year.

This meadowlark’s yellow breast stands out even more brightly against the snow than it does in the summer prairie.  That’s probably why it took me forever to get a photo where it was actually showing it off.  Four or five have been hanging out in the yard around our shop since November.

Now, it’s very likely that the robins and meadowlarks seen in the winter aren’t the exact same birds that nest in that location in the summer. These species do migrate to an extent, with their range shifting south during the winter months, leaving their northern reaches free of birds and inhabiting new areas in the south. However, theirs are not migrations of thousands of miles. Instead, birds only move a few hundred miles at most. The behavior of these birds also changes drastically during the winter months. They are much more reclusive, and since the males aren’t singing constantly, they certainly seem to disappear.

So while juncos and tree sparrows have a reputation as cold-enduring species, I think it’s worth giving our other local birds some recognition. They’re here during the winter as well, they’re just not as obvious about it.