The Louisiana waterthrush is one of the first migratory songbirds to appear in our region in the spring.
It breeds along forested headwater streams and feasts on tiny invertebrates, like mayflies and crayfish, living in the water. Essentially, the bird’s whole life cycle is tied to the stream. So if something happens to the stream, the Louisiana waterthrush would be one of the first to know.
Mack Frantz is a Ph.D. candidate at West Virginia University who recently published a journal article about the measurable effect the shale gas development is having on this little bird.
“The Louisiana waterthrush is the proverbial canary in the coal mine,” Frantz says.
Frantz and his colleagues studied habitat in West Virginia where there has been increasing activity from the gas industry. It’s a heavily forested area but there’s also a lot of forest fragmentation happening.
“It’s not really so much the placement of a well pad, but all of the infrastructure it takes in order to access that well pad and to transfer the gas — access road, pipelines, compressor stations,” Frantz explains. “And so in areas where you used to have contiguous forested habitat, which is important to have for certain kinds of wildlife — that might be broken up.”
Frantz and the research team looked at aerial and satellite images of gas development, and spent hours in the field from 2009 to 2011 when unconventional drilling began and was peaking, and then again from 2013 to 2015. They also monitored waterthrush nests and territories, including stream quality and found that nest survival decreased.
“So the probability that a nest is going to be successful over its 29 day nesting period that was lower, due to shale gas development,” Frantz says. “And we also saw that shale gas disturbed areas were producing less fledglings.”
The study also suggests that Louisiana waterthrush have had to increase their range to find the food and the habitat they need. Frantz says that his research shows that it doesn’t take a very big disturbance to see a significant negative effects on wildlife.
“The study area is still more than 91 percent forested,” he says. “Yet we’re still seeing these effects.”
Frantz hopes that their findings could be used to influence policy around the oil and gas industry.
“I’m not allowed to give management recommendations per se,” he says. “But we definitely need to evaluate [if we] should allow infrastructure and development this close to a forested headwater stream where our public drinking water comes from. So it is warranted to try to re-evaluate some of these regulations that are existing, and see if they need beefed up or if we need new ones.”