Amanda Dillon is the field ecologist and entomologist at the Albany Pine Bush. She keeps track of the Karner blue butterfly, which was on the brink of extinction but now has a healthy population that continues to grow, and helps out with prescribed burns and bands birds that use the preserve. She also collects and identifies insect specimens, manages the science lecture series and community science programs offered at the preserve. She lives in Schenectady with her cat Jazzi and her parakeet Trooper.
Q: Let’s get the bug questions out of the way. Most girls don’t like bugs — how did you get into insects and why do you like working with insects? Do you have a favorite insect and why is it your favorite?
A: I have always loved insects! When I was a kid, I used to rescue bees and dragonflies from the bird bath in the garden and collected the exuvia of cicadas. I pet bumble bees, let cicadas crawl all over me, thought it was the coolest thing when a giant predaceous diving beetle bit me, and was so proud when I identified my first dragonfly nymph. I think I drove my parents a little crazy. One time I found this funny looking thing in the garden. I hung it with sticky tack to the roof of my critter cage (made out of window screen and tuna fish cans.) My mom was sure flies were going to hatch out of it. One day when I got home from school there was a beautiful Polyphemus moth hanging from it. Since childhood, I’ve always had a fascination with insects. I think I like how different they are from us and how easy they are to study. I love watching them, identifying them, and handling them. My favorite when I was a kid was probably cicadas but recently I spend most of my time with bees. Not honey bees, mind you, but native bees of all sorts and kinds. To date, I have found 168 different species of bees in the Pine Bush.
Q: The Karner blue comeback is an inspiring story. What is the main contributing factor in seeing the population doing so well and why is it so satisfying to see it do so well?
A: There are many factors contributing to Karner success in the Pine Bush. The main factor is likely the increase in suitable habitat. This species depends on Wild Blue Lupine which is the only plant the larvae (or caterpillars) of Karners will feed on. As the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission has restored habitat in the Pine Bush, they have restored this plant and increased the area of Karner habitat from just five hectares in 1997 to 290 hectares in 2018. Since these tiny butterflies only travel a couple hundred meters over their lifetimes, we also helped them find newly restored sites by captive rearing and releasing Karners between 2008 and 2015 into 27 sites. Restoration and management efforts at the preserve have maintained and improved these sites for the butterflies over the years. There are also likely other factors outside of our control, like weather, that have a large effect on the population from year to year. I started working for the Albany Pine Bush in 2010 and it was a real treat to see a handful of Karners on a survey. This year, seeing clouds of blue like historians and naturalists describe from the Pine Bush days of old, was amazing. Such a small thing that seems so fleeting and yet we brought it back from the brink.
Q: What is the message you try to bring to children and the community at large during the science lectures and programs you manage?
A: The Pine Bush is a microcosm for ecological conservation globally. Sir David Attenborough said , “no one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” Education is a huge part of our conservation efforts. Through education, visitors gain an understanding of the uniqueness and rareness of the Pine Bush which instills a desire to protect it and hopefully our global environment. With the science lecture series in particular, we hope to make research more accessible to the public. Though we try to focus the series on preserve research, we sometimes showcase larger issues like human wildlife interactions, wildlife disease, and invasive species. Our community science program works to engage our neighbors and preserve-goers in helping us collect meaningful data to further our scientific understanding of the preserve. These volunteers act as our eyes and ears on the ground, expanding our capacity for data collection. Community scientists help us with large-scale or long-term projects like monitoring snowpack, and conducting night call surveys for Eastern whip-poor-will and American woodcock. Both the science lecture series and the community science program hope to make pine bush science more accessible to the public.
Q: Outside of the Karner blue, what is the most special characteristic of the Pine Bush? What is your favorite place in the Pine Bush?
A: That’s a tough question. I guess I would say the pitch pines. When I first started working in the area, I thought the pitch pines, with their asymmetric growth form, were sharp and displeasing. But over time, I have come to love them. They are especially beautiful silhouetted by the morning sun or a full moon. They are shaped by the habitat around them and each one has a story to tell just by looking at the branches. Pitch pines that were surrounded by invasive black locust when they were growing, look like Seuss’s truffula trees with puffy green branches only at the tippy tops. When these are day-lighted following locust removal, puffs of green pop through the bark all along the trunk. The same happens after a burn; when the needles are scorched by the fire, the trees put out fresh clumps of needles along the trunk. This is actually what gives them their characteristic asymmetrical shape. Instead of putting on a ring of branches every year like other pines do (which gives them their classic “Christmas tree” shape), pitch pines grow in response to their environment. Some trees that have been growing in the open for many years have giant apron branches that touch the ground weighted down by needles. They are as dynamic as the pine bush landscape, always shifting in response to change. I have a few favorite spots in the pine bush, some I like for the flowers, some I like for the bees and the birds, some I like for the views, and some I like for the quiet. All of them are off the beaten path. I don’t want to give away all my secrets, but the best view in the Pine Bush is from the top of the largest dune in the Truax Trail Barrens.
Q: Field work sounds like the fun part of your job but the other half sounds way less glamorous. How important is it to codify your field work, and is the Pine Bush more significant than a cool place to take a walk?
A: The field work is fun! But it is all for a greater purpose. Our science work in the preserve allows us to gain a better understanding of the biology and ecology of the Pine Bush through research and monitoring. Monitoring species allows us to document any changes in their distribution or abundance over time. Our Karner blue butterfly monitoring results in yearly estimates of population size that help us determine if our efforts to recover the Karner are working. Research is question-based and uses the scientific method to help us come to a better understanding of certain organisms or ecosystem processes. Research questions that I have worked on include, what is the best way to monitor Frosted Elfin butterflies? And what effect does herbicide treatment of scrub oak have on the native bee community? We conduct research in-house but we also frequently team up with local universities and other research institutions. The research and monitoring we do is rigorously designed to maximize data quality. That data is then rigorously analyzed to determine if we are seeing true patterns. The results of these analyses help us do the best job we can at restoring and maintaining this globally rare ecosystem. If the data tell us something is not working, a target species is not responding to treatment for example, then we go back to the drawing board and try a new method. This especially came into play when we first started managing the Pine Bush after years of fire suppression and subsequent habitat degradation. The Pine Bush is definitely more than a cool place to walk! The vegetation community that predominates in the Pine Bush is very rare with less than 20 occurrences globally. And that rare community protects a number of rare species that can’t be found anywhere else. In addition to the Karner blue, 77 other rare and declining species have been documented in the preserve since 1980 including Eastern spadefoots, Eastern hognose snake, American eel, Prairie warbler, and Inland barrens buckmoth, to name a few. It’s so different in character from any other habitat you’ll find in the Capital District and so much more than just a name.
If you would like to see someone featured in Five Questions contact Jim Franco at 518-878-1000 or [email protected]