Sunday, January 06, 2008

Birders Document Global Warming Changes

Thomas McDonald for The New York Times
A saw-whet owl in an evergreen tree.

A story from last week's New York Times on the Audubon Society's annual Christmas bird count and how global warming has effected where birds are wintering:

NYTimes: The Binocular Brigade

John Flicker, president of the National Audubon Society, has called birds “the canary in the coal mine — a sign that something is going on” in terms of environmental change.

National Audubon recently issued its WatchList 2007, a periodic synthesis of data for the United States that takes into account current species’ population size, population trends, range size of a species and threats to a spread of populations. According to Dr. Greg Butcher, National Audubon’s director of bird conservation, there are 10 regional species on the WatchList’s urgent list and some 37 regional species on the cautionary list.

“The worst of it is definitely in the future,” Dr. Butcher said. Among other things, “we’re worried about the coastal species in 50 to 100 years.”

Geoffrey S. LeBaron, national director of the bird count, elaborated. Should ocean levels rise in coming decades, he said, the already endangered piping plover that nests on Jones Beach and elsewhere, for one, would be particularly vulnerable.

Mr. LeBaron calls forest species the future’s “wild card.” Common, adaptable species with habitats near the human population will probably be relatively unaffected, he said.

For now, there is unease, if not panic, among the New York region’s birders.

Julian Sproule, president of the Saugatuck Valley Audubon Society, in Wilton, Conn., also serves on birding boards at the state level and has a broader perspective on how climate change affects the region. He points to a study led by Alan Hitch, a wildlife expert at Auburn University, that clearly documents a northward trend among certain species. The familiar northern cardinal, Mr. Sproule said, and the Carolina wren are wintering here.

Scott Heth, president of the Sharon Audubon Society in Connecticut, said, “We’re pretty sure that has to do with climate change.” Green herons are atypically wintering in Orient. Mockingbirds, Baltimore orioles, egrets and some hummingbirds are wintering around New York.

Moreover, some birdwatchers lament the loss of habitat throughout the area. It is considered “at least as important as climate change” to species depletion, said Lawrence Trachtenberg, who watches from Westchester.

Dr. Butcher said that habitat loss, caused by “the tremendous growth of the megalopolis” around New York, has already caused the demise of the northern bobwhite, and “has had a pretty dramatic effect” on kestrel populations as well as other species here.

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