In our work, most studies last one to three years; we find a problem, a way to examine it, and we report our findings. Rarely do we have the chance to connect with the naturalists of old and observe just to observe.
In the bogs and cold forests of the Adirondacks, I have had the chance to do just that. In 2007, WCS was awarded a New York State Wildlife Grant to embark on a project that we as biologists rarely have the luxury of doing these days, and that is the old-fashioned collection of baseline data. This sort of work is important, but it is increasingly hard to convince funders of its importance.
We were not testing a hypothesis or exploring a cause-effect relationship; our aim was just to gather information on the distribution and abundance of a group of fairly specialized peatland-associated birds that most people are unaware of and fewer get a chance to see.
We explored the “charismatic megabogs” that were well known to the birding community, but we also got to new places in far-flung areas to survey and document the occurrence of 12 species of boreal birds who live in the conifer-dominated, open bog and peaty forest areas of the Adirondack Park. You know them as the places where you see tamaracks and spindly black spruce, where the ground underneath you is slightly spongy and sphagnum covered, where you feel like you’ve been transplanted somehow from a place far to the north.
Those initial surveys marked the beginning of what is now more than a decade of bird surveys in these special habitats and have revealed a story which is, unfortunately, not a happy one. The birds are disappearing.
We have tracked occurrence patterns and trends for black-backed woodpecker, gray jay, Lincoln’s sparrow, olive-sided flycatcher, yellow-bellied flycatcher, rusty blackbird, boreal chickadee, and palm warbler (the other four of the original target species are found so seldom we cannot accurately estimate trends). In 2014, I wrote a paper for Northeastern Naturalist documenting declines in about half of these species from 2007 to 2011, and we collaborated with the NYSDEC again last year to reexamine those trends with the data from 2012 to the present.
Unfortunately, declines are now evident in all species except the palm warbler. In some cases, like rusty blackbird and olive-sided flycatcher, these declines are steep and mirror patterns at larger scales. For others, declines are more moderate and though increasingly scarce in the park, they show mixed patterns elsewhere.
Because the Adirondack Park lies at the transition zone between the temperate and boreal biomes, we are largely at the southern range extent for most of these species within eastern North America. And because these habitats are southern holdouts of a colder, higher-latitude system, we are probably documenting retractions at the range margin. Poleward range shifts resulting from climate change have been documented on all continents and in most of the world’s major oceans for all well-studied plant and animal groups; we are probably witnessing another example. We are now working with the USGS and the Northeast Climate Science Center to try to better understand what’s behind the changes we’re seeing.
Combating and reversing the havoc wreaked by climate change will require a concerted global effort and could not be more urgent; each of us should take every step that we can to reduce our own carbon footprint in the best ways we know how. But there are things we can do to help these birds at home too.
We’ve learned from our research that these species are also sensitive to more local effects of our land use decisions. Proximity of houses and roads impact the likelihood of their use and persistence in individual wetlands; human disturbance from recreational activities may even affect habitat quality in some places. Careful planning that protects boreal wetlands and buffers them from intensive land uses will help these species maintain their unique place in the Adirondack avifauna.
Photos from above: Bloomingdale Bog by Michale Glennon; and Gray Jay by Larry Master.