Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Keeping an eye on bird migrations

bird banding

Endemic to the Adirondack Park are a number of brilliant birders and I’m pretty sure they all roll their eyes when they see me coming, because I’m not much good with biological IDs of any kind, and I’m always peppering them with dopey questions like, “What bird is small, black and white and has a song that kind of goes ‘chickadee-dee-dee.’”

Birds are fascinating for their appearance, songs and habits, and as with most outdoor things, I know just enough to be dangerous.

This week a creature of avian disposition crossed my path and I silently wondered what kind of bird is blue, with a little rust and is about the size of a bluebi …

Oh, right.

In my defense this was Dec. 2, and bluebirds typically have vamoosed by now, so the little fellow caught me by surprise. I can’t say for a fact this is a direct product of climate/habitat change, although I doubt he’s just been sticking around for the Christmas in the Forks parade.

Curiously, this October I had an epidemic of bluebirds flying down the chimney into the (unlit) wood stove, reasons unknown. They didn’t seem to mind being gently removed, and flew off as happily as if they’d just ridden the Steamin’ Demon at Great Escape.

My New York relatives tell me that when they were growing up, the cardinal was an unknown. When I was growing up in the Mid Atlantic, flocks of evening grosbeaks were as common as juncos, but they’re all gone now. Grosbeak (although of a different variety) behavior has changed in the Adirondacks, too.

The whip-poor-wills existed in such numbers that their call would rattle the windows at night when I was a little boy in West Virginia. The habitat was directly traceable to the sheep farm next door, which fenced in its pastures with miles of multiflora rose hedge. The one winter they chopped down all the hedges and replaced them with barbed wire. I never heard another whip-poor-will again until two summers ago on our farm in Jay. It did bring a tear. Stupid bird.

Even though I was little, whip-poor-wills imprinted upon me the true fact that a change in habitat can cause populations to shift, not over time, but overnight.

In a similar vein, something happened — we just don’t know what — that caused a beautiful, almost penguinesque seabird known as a razorbill to show up on the shores of Lake Champlain at Crown Point where one had never been seen before. At almost the same time, said Port Henry birder Stacy Robinson, a gannet happened along, another seabird that is not unknown on Lake  Champlain, but quite rare.

Birders flocked, so to speak, to the point to lay binoculars on the black and white razorbill, which is more common in Western Iceland and the northern U.S. and Canadian coasts. But clearly, there were mixed feelings.

“Unfortunately, the fact that the bird is inland on Lake Champlain indicates the bird is likely stressed and has been displaced,” said Derek Rogers of the Adirondack Land Trust. “The Crown Point razorbill represents one of several that have been discovered inland this year from Lake Ontario north to Ottawa and Montreal.”

This winter has been slow to arrive, so maybe the bluebird knows something we don’t know. But the morning after I saw him there was snow. Then a warming sun. Then rain. If he’s confused, he’s not alone.

Editor’s note: This first appeared in Adirondack Explorer’s weekly “Explore More” newsletter. Click here to sign up

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Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.

9 Responses

  1. Boreas says:


    Bluebirds are closely related to Robins (Thrushes) and they have similar behaviors and often flock together over the winter. Neither are particularly afraid of the cold as long as they can find food. In winter, they are forced to switch their diets from invertebrates to fruits, berries, and seeds of various trees and bushes. They will also tend to aggregate near water and on the S side of hillsides where the sun is strongest, air the warmest, and the snow thinnest.

    Most female Bluebirds leave the harsher areas, but males are indeed becoming more frequent with the mild winters. But they too will migrate short distances (often with the Robins) when the food gives out.

    Another thrush species that tends to hang around in winter is N. Mockingbirds. Although we have few here in summer, the males again tend to hang around to keep their territory or at least be the first one on the spot in spring. The early bird gets the leftover rotten fruit from winter as well as their choice of territory. But the females typically choose the final nest site.

    The birds listed above and some others like Yellow-rumped Warblers, some Wrens, and a few others I can’t think of are listed as “half-hardy”, meaning they don’t always migrate long distances to overwinter, but migrate just far enough to find food – typically seeds and berries. So it is always a good idea to do a double-take on any bird in winter that seems out of place.

  2. JT says:

    I live in Northern St. Lawrence County. A couple times last week I saw small flocks of Bluebirds. This is the first time since living here for 25 years I have seen them this time of year.

  3. Evelyn Greene says:

    Another great story. He knows enough to pay attention to what he sees and be puzzled by some of it. It’s not dangerous at all to be curious about the “natural” world. Evelyn Greene

  4. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “The whip-poor-wills existed in such numbers that their call would rattle the windows at night when I was a little boy…”

    “razorbill to show up on the shores of Lake Champlain at Crown Point where one had never been seen before.”

    “This is the first time since living here for 25 years I have seen them this time of year.”

    > Things are changing for sure. We all have stories that start with, “I remember the days….” My grandfather, Robert G., who has been dead fifty years, talked about the loss of the marshlands and shorebirds on Long Island & NYC, due to development, when he was alive. He was talking about this in the 30’s, or prior, when it wasn’t even on anybody’s radar. I know this through his letters and journals. He used to hunt the fields on the land that eventually became LaGuardia Airport. Progress!

    If we were smart we’d do things different. If we had vision we’d a-started on this thirty years ago. Fifty! Where I live, and the places I travel through locally, I see things that would bring tears to an Indian’s eyes. There is just not an acre of woods or fields, what’s left of them, that is not up for the chopping block…… Never mind that they are all precious ecosystems filled with unseen life. It really does matter all of what is left, but there’s no convincing a capitalist. Man is the great disrupter. Humanity is prone to annihilate itself and to take every last living ‘thing’ with it. How sad and how shameful! Anybody who is proud to be a part of this raise your hand!

  5. Ann Breen says:

    Our camp in Loch Muller had evening visits from whip-poor-wills. They stopped calling when it got dark, and the barred owls took over. What a way to be sleep deprived!

  6. Wally Elton says:

    “This winter has been slow to arrive, so maybe the bluebird knows something we don’t know.” No doubt about that! Whether it includes weather forecasting is not clear, but we are gradually realizing that there is more than one kind of “intelligence” among living things. Enjoyed the article.

  7. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “we are gradually realizing that there is more than one kind of “intelligence” among living things.”

    Maybe (?) this generation is just coming around to this, and but a select few of them, but this has been known!

  8. Richard Powers says:

    I have been watching birds for over 45 years and I have seen a decline in several breeds. No Chicadees .They used to ce to the feeder all day. No purple Martins we need for cutting down on Mosquitos. No Hungarian Partridges. Past 2years no Ruffed Grouse. There is a new breed of tiny finches. Very few yellow gold finch. Wondering if they got displaced from storms. I also wonder if the high speed internet 5 g has anything to do with it.

    • Boreas says:

      If there is a decline in Chickadee numbers, it is likely from competition. Both Tufted Titmice and Cardinals have been expanding their range northward for decades. All of these birds stay fairly local over the winters, and nest in the same areas, so they will compete to some extent for food. Even Bluebirds are becoming more numerous with nest box programs. So yes, when some species increase their numbers, it can cause declines to others.

      In my area, Tree Swallows, thrushes, and warblers seem to be in significant decline over the last 20 years. All are significant insect eaters. People pay attention to bird populations, but pretty much ignore insect populations and crashes, and the reasons behind them. We do so at our peril as well.

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