Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Survey Finds Birds Are Moving Uphill On Whiteface Mountain

American Robin by Wikimedia user MdfA survey of birds on Whiteface Mountain has found that many species have moved uphill in the past forty years, possibly in response to climate change.

New York State Museum curator Jeremy Kirchman and Alison Van Keuren, a volunteer, conducted bird surveys on the 4,867-foot peak in 2013 and 2014. Their work replicated surveys by two University at Albany biologists, K.P. Able and B.R. Noon, in 1973 and 1974.

The surveys included looking and listening for birds at seven spots on Whiteface. Able and Noon also surveyed Nippletop (like Whiteface, one of the Adirondack High Peaks) and two Vermont mountains, but that work wasn’t duplicated.

“There’s a lot of bird species that are now found all the way to the very top of Whiteface Mountain that were not found at the very top forty years ago,” Kirchman said.

He said fourteen birds were found in the highest elevations on Whiteface in this most recent survey as compared with just seven located forty years ago. The American robin and yellow-bellied flycatcher are among the new birds now found in the highest elevations on Whiteface. The yellow-bellied flycatcher has moved roughly a thousand feet up the mountain while the robin has gone up about 1,400 feet.

“Usually those changes are due to some kind of perturbation like habitat change,” Kirchman said. “But in this case, it’s probably driven by warmer temperatures because the habitat has not changed at all.”

Kirchman did not look into why the changes occurred for any of the birds. He speculated Robins and yellow-bellied flycatchers could have moved up the mountain for other reasons. For example, their populations and overall ranges may be growing.

Kirchman said he hopes to survey Nippletop next summer and plans to do surveys every five years on Whiteface to document bird-population changes. He noted that several scientific models and papers (including one authored by him) have predicted that many, or all, of the boreal birds will disappear from the Adirondacks before the end of the century because of rising temperatures. Many live in bogs and other lowland boreal habitats; others live in spruce-fir forests located just below tree line on mountains. Many come to the Adirondacks to breed in the warmer months.

“Boreal chickadee, gray jay, yellow-bellied flycatcher, blackpoll warbler, Bicknell’s thrush are all boreal forest specialists that meet the southern periphery of their breeding ranges right here in the Adirondacks,” he said. “If global warming is pushing birds north and uphill, then we should expect to see these changes in the Adirondacks first. It could be a sort of canary in the coal mine for boreal forest birds responding to climate change at a continent scale because we’re in this interesting place.”

For those interested in learning more about the study, Kirchman is scheduled to talk about the project at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, August 18 at the Atmospheric Science Research Center’s Whiteface field station, which is located on Marble Mountain Lane off the Whiteface Memorial Highway in Wilmington. The presentation is titled, “Altitudinal Shifts of Adirondack Birds in Response to Climate Change?”

Photo by Wikimedia user Mdf: American Robins are now found on top of Whiteface Mountain.

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Mike Lynch is a staff writer and photographer for the nonprofit Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly news magazine with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues. Mike’s favorite outdoor activities include paddling, hiking, fishing and backcountry skiing. In 2011, he paddled the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine. From 2007 until 2014, Mike worked as an outdoors writer and photographer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in Saranac Lake. Mike welcomes story ideas and can be reached at mike@adirondackexplorer.org.

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