Wednesday, March 4, 2009

5 Questions: Saranac Lake Birder Brian McAllister

Brian McAllister of Saranac Lake conducts bird surveys for environmental groups and wind-power companies, teaches ornithology lab at Paul Smith’s College and is one of the founders of the annual Great Adirondack Birding Celebration.

He discusses what to look for during this winter-to-spring transition as warblers and other migrants journey north to their Adirondack nesting grounds, and he talks about tower lights that keep some birds from ever making it back.

Q. Can we call you a professional birdwatcher?

A. I guess I’d call myself a field ornithologist. I’ve been lucky to piecemeal a career in birding here in the Adirondacks.

Q. Do you bird-watch every day?

A. I bet I do. I’m constantly tuned in to what’s going on, even if I’m just driving somewhere.

Q. So how was your winter?

A. It’s been amazing. Every year there is some sort of irruption, with one or two species that sort of run out of food up north, so they come down south to the border states and into New York and Southern Canada to find cones or other food. This year it’s been phenomenal because everything came: red crossbills, white-winged crossbills, bohemian waxwings, redpolls, pine siskins, pine grosbeaks, hawk owls. Also, it’s a record year for snow buntings.

Q. What are you looking for now?

A. It’s funny, in March I veer away from the winter up here and focus on what’s happening in Florida and the Caribbean because a lot of migratory birds are starting to jump out of the tropical rainforest and work their way up the East Coast. Last night I was checking the Internet for rare bird alerts in Florida, and they’re seeing a bunch of warblers. They’re on the move. Along Lake Champlain and Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River we’ve got red-winged blackbirds and sparrows coming up from Mid-Atlantic states — also rusty blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, anywhere from March 1 on. Some winter birds begin to sing in March in courtship, like golden-crowned kinglets and brown creepers. Owls are on territory now and they’re breeding.

Q. You’ve done some field surveys at potential wind-turbine sites north of the Adirondack Park, but there’s a lot of talk lately about another kind of tower.

A. Yes, communications towers. The most famous tower-kill study was done by Bill Evans of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and he conducted most of his dead-bird counts at television towers in the Boston Hills area of western New York. Tower kills per year are far worse than all wind turbine deaths put together. Outdoor cats kill the most birds, then towers and their guy wires are a close second. But what we have to realize is that these kills only occur on nights of heavy fog or very low cloud ceiling when there’s a heavy migration. The birds see this glow in the fog, and for some reason — we don’t know why — they’re attracted to it. They start circling, around and around and eventually they die of exhaustion or they actually collide into the tower or, more likely, into the unseen guy wires. . . . The solid red lights on top of towers should all be changed to blinking or strobe lights. Researchers have discovered that those are less harmful. When I lived on Averyville Road in Lake Placid there was a tower behind my cabin and on foggy nights it would cast this eery red glow, and I could see how birds are attracted to it.

Editor’s note: According to McAllister’s copy (thanks, Brian) of “Living on the Wind” by Scott Weidensaul (North Point Press, 1999), two to four million birds are killed by towers taller than 200 feet each year in the Eastern United States alone. To sign a petition asking the Federal Communications Commission to minimize tower kills click here. To follow current sightings by Brian and other Northern New York birders, click here. Brian’s own natural-history observations and photographs can be found on his blog, Adirondacks Naturally.

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Mary Thill

Mary Thill lives in Saranac Lake and has worked alternately in journalism and Adirondack conservation for three decades.




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