The Heat Is Online

Bird Migrations Changed by Warming

Bird watchers note migration changes

Rare sights follow warmth

The Boston Globe, Dec. 24, 2001

PORTLAND, Maine - Birders taking part in the annual Christmas count in Maine are finding that warmer weather has changed the migratory pattern of some species.

The Audubon Society holds the count each year to track trends in bird populations and habits. Don Tucker, chairman of the York Audubon Society's conservation committee and keeper of the bird records, has seen significant and rapid changes in bird populations.

"'The number of migratory birds has definitely decreased," Tucker said. "We tend not to see as many birds from farther north. They stay in the Arctic and Canada because it's warm enough for them."

At the same time, birders are now seeing some other birds that weren't seen as far north as Maine during the winter 20 years ago.

"There was a time that cardinals were scarce to rare in Maine in winter. Now there's lots of cardinals in Maine. I usually have 10 to 12 of them in my backyard," Tucker said.

The same trend holds true for Carolina wrens and the red-bellied woodpecker. Those species are now commonly seen in Massachusetts during the winter and are starting to show up in Maine - something that was unheard of just 12 years ago.

Chuck Barnes was among the dozen birders standing atop the cliffs in York, looking out over Boon Island. They rose before sunrise and braved the cold to help with the count and to get the chance to find and identify another species.

The birders have already identified a number of common eiders, the harlequin eider, loons and others. Barnes saw his first king eider and his first snowy owl during this year's count.

"You never know what you're going to see," Barnes said. "That's the beauty of birdwatching."

This year, the birders have noticed more northern birds around Portland and York County. The presence of more pine grossbeaks, snowy owls and whitewing cross bills may be due to low pine cone yields or other problems finding food.

The birders, meanwhile, have been thinking about the sage thrasher that was spotted last month at Nubble Light in York. That bird wasn't expected to be anywhere near Maine at all; by all rights it should be in Arizona for the winter.

People from all over the Northeast have been driving up to Nubble Light for a chance to see the off-course sage thrasher.

''Maine Audubon has a rare bird alert,'' Tucker said. ''They may say in Machias there's such-and-such a species and if you're inclined, you get in the car and drive up and see it.''

© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.