Assessing the relationships between pollinator-friendly plantings and birds, bats and white-tailed deer on farms in the Coastal Plain of Virginia and Maryland

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Virginia Tech


Pollinator-friendly wildflower and native grass plantings are increasingly incentivized by state and federal agencies to improve ecosystem services provided by pollinating insects on farmland. However, the potential ecosystem service benefits, or even disservices, of pollinator-friendly plantings relative to wildlife, such as resident, migratory, and nesting birds (e.g., wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)), resident and migratory bats, and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are of interest to both landowners and conservation managers. First, we studied bird species diversity, presence, density, and nesting on farms planted with and without pollinator-friendly plantings to evaluate the potential value of these plantings to bird-related values, such as cultural, recreational, and pest-regulating ecosystem services. Second, we quantified bat relative activity through recorded echolocation calls and explored how relative nightly activity varied across common cover types on a farm, by survey year, and by maternity (May-August) versus non-maternity season (September-April). Third, we determined whether white-tailed deer and wild turkey camera trap success and occupancy differed between farms with and without pollinator-friendly farmscaped plots, evaluated along with their relationships to percent cover of natural, developed, crop, and water habitats within 1 km of surveyed farms.

We conducted bird point counts across 20 farms on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland and the city of Virginia Beach, VA during the Spring and Fall of 2017 and 2018. We searched for bird nests in pollinator-friendly plots during the summers of 2017 and 2018. There were no differences in alpha diversity, defined as the number of species per farm per survey period, between control and pollinator farms in either Spring or Fall. We did find differences in species evenness on farms during Spring surveys, as measured by Simpson's index, with pollinator farms having a higher mean Simpson's index. When examining factors relating to presence/absence of our 15 modeled bird species out of 110 species detected on farms, landscape-level cover types were influential in 14 species and presence of pollinator plots was influential for 5 species. After stratification of density estimates by control and pollinator farm study sites, we found that during Spring surveys, the blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) and Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) had lower density on pollinator farms. In the Fall, the blue grosbeak (Passerina caerulea) had higher density on pollinator farms. We found nesting in the pollinator-friendly plots by red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus; n=7). These nests were placed in locations within the pollinator plots with higher forb coverage than random points in the same plots without nests.

We estimated the presence and relative activity of bats in 4 cover types, including forest trail, a forested pond edge, a crop field on forest edge, and a farmscaped wildflower plot, on the Eastern Shore Agricultural Research Extension Center in Painter, Virginia, from April 2017- November 2019 using acoustic detectors. Of total detections, 20.11% were identified as big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus), 17.97% evening bat (Nycticeius humeralis), 15.35% silver-haired bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans), 7.11% eastern red bats (Lasiurus borealis), 3.66% hoary bats (Lasiurus cinereus), 3.1% little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), and 1.38% tricolored bat (Perimyotis subflavus). Relative activity measured by calls per night varied by cover type, with relative activity highest for all 7 species in the crop field-forest edge and water-forest edge cover types as compared to pollinator plot and forest trail cover types during the maternity season (May-August). All 7 bat species were recorded in the pollinator plot cover type; of the 8,877 calls in pollinator plots, 26.07% were silver-haired bat, 25.21% eastern red bats, 23.78% evening bat, 9.32% hoary bats, 9.11% little brown bat, 5.42% big brown bat, and 1.09% tricolored bat.

We used camera trap surveys to measure white-tailed deer and wild turkey occupancy across 20 farms on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and in the city of Virginia Beach, Virginia during the Spring and Fall of 2017 and 2018. Of all wild species photographed, white-tailed deer were most abundant (TS, # captures/100 nights) each survey season, however this varied season to season (Spring 2017 = 98.44 TS, Fall 2017 = 106.01 TS, Spring 2018 = 80.52 TS, Fall 2018 = 99.71 TS). Wild turkey total survey camera trap success was low compared to deer and other wildlife (4.51 TS), and also varied seasonally (Spring 2017 = 1.73 TS, Fall 2017 = 1.50 TS, Spring 2018 = 7.63 TS, Fall 2018 = 5.95 TS). White-tailed deer were detected at all survey locations at least once, and the occupancy of deer decreased as the percentage of developed land within 1km of a farm increased in each survey season. The factors relating to wild turkey occupancy varied by season. In Spring 2017, wild turkey occupancy increased as the percent of natural cover within 1 km of a farm increased. In Spring 2018, wild turkey occupancy decreased as the percent of developed land within 1 km increased. However, landscape variables did not influence wild turkey occupancy in the Fall seasons; rather in Fall 2018 we found that wild turkey occupancy decreased as camera trap success of farm machinery being used increased. Overall, wild turkey had a fairly low presence on all survey sites with an occupancy ranging from 0.18-0.53%, and no clear relationship to explain the change in survey season to season or year to year. Based on these results, pollinator plot presence or absence was not found to influence detection or occupancy of either of these target game species. Rather, other factors, mainly landscape-scale features, were found to have the largest influence on both species' occupancy and presence.

Our study is one of just a few in North America to demonstrate some potential benefits of pollinator-friendly plantings to multiple different wildlife species with cultural, recreational, and insect-regulating ecosystem service benefits to landowners. Generally, birds, bats, and our focal game species' presence relied on surrounding landscape variables and forest-edge configurations more than the presence of pollinator friendly plantings. This is probably in part due to the small size of our pollinator plots. We recommend that future work explore potentially increasing the size of pollinator plot plantings or placing pollinator plantings in locations on the landscape with the most surrounding natural area, and least development, to maximize the benefits of this resource to diverse wildlife species with home ranges that are often larger than any one farm.



bats, birds, pollinator plot, farmscaping, landscape effects, white-tailed deer, wild turkey