Changing Geographic Range of Local Birds

Grace's Warbler

NPR’s Rich Guthrie details the many species edging northwards in Audubon talk

By Alison Rooney

The overall theme of Rich Guthrie’s presentation to Putnam Highlands Audubon Society (PHAS) members and friends last Saturday (Jan.7) was the expansion of range for birds formerly found in the warmer climes of the southern United States and Latin America.  Guthrie, a birder for decades, and host of the NPR radio talk show The Catbird Seat, began his Taconic Outdoors Education Center (TOEC) talk with an anecdote about a very recent experience. On New Year’s Day, two very experienced birders, part of group participating in the Audubon Bird Count on Long Island, excitedly alerted fellow participants by walkie-talkie that, in a pine grove, they had spotted a yellow-breasted bird they could not immediately recognize. They determined that it was a Grace’s Warbler, a bird usually found in Central America during January and never before seen in New York State or this far east. By Guthrie’s description, “hordes of birders stopped what they were doing and checked it out, then and there. The next day crowds of birders came again, but the bird was a no show.”  Guthrie was lucky enough to come back the day after that and hit the jackpot, seeing the unusual visitor, who disappeared once again after the day of Guthrie’s sighting. This experience exemplified Guthrie’s theme of “changes I’ve seen birding in New York State.”

Running down multiple examples of birds, formerly limited geographically to states like South Carolina and Florida, or the Southwest, and even to Central and Latin America, Guthrie ascribed the many changes seen in recent decades, and in particular over the past ten years, to changes in climate. “Some say it has to do with feeding birds. But it has to be something other than that. Everything points to climate change.  Look at the Hudson.  Ice harvesting used to be an industry — the ice used to be brought out to ice houses. There used to be ice skating on it.  The river today has no ice in it; in 2001/2002 the river didn’t freeze at all.”

Rich Guthrie at the start of his talk

Guthrie’s talk, illustrated with visuals on most of the birds he described, took place at the PHAS’s annual winter bird seed pick up and chili luncheon. Hosted at the Taconic Center on a balmy January afternoon, Guthrie was introduced by remarks from TOEC’s Paul Kuznia, who made a pitch for the following day’s “snowless Winterfest” where the schedule of activities had been altered somewhat to reflect the mild temperatures thus far into the season. The TOEC did not have its usual January appearance of snow-covered hills and icy branches, but not many complaints were heard.  In a bit of irony, Guthrie’s talk was originally scheduled for Oct.30, but had to be canceled due to the one and only snowstorm of the season.  PHAS’s Connie Mayer-Bakall informed the audience of other upcoming Audubon events, including Eagle Fest, which takes place on Feb. 4 at multiple locations along the Hudson.  An added feature of Eagle Fest this year will be special “Eagle Train” service from Metro-North, enabling city-dwellers the opportunity to participate in all the activities. (See for more details.)

Guthrie, who has conducted a lot of ornithological research, and writes a birding blog for the Albany Times Union, spoke of earlier patterns of bird migration, drawing attention to introduced species, including many brought over during the Victorian era when “it was in vogue back then to bring in strange stuff: birds, plants, animals.”  He described how this was responsible for the many House Sparrows (formerly called English Sparrows) found in New York City, as they were brought over and released in Central Park during the 1870s. This happened again, in a different manner, with House Finches. Native to Arizona, California and ‘south of the border,’ they were brought to Long Island to be sold in pet shops, as popular cage birds, but were released and now these “birds of the Southwest desert are able to survive the Northeast winters and have expanded from Long Island to New Jersey, up the Hudson, into Canada and now even westward, through to the Mississippi Valley where they have met up with those in their traditional ranges in the Southwest.” Now the House Finches are undergoing another transformation.  A great many of them were stricken with a highly infectious eye disease and great populations of them virtually disappeared. A small group survived and are now re-populating, resulting in a more stable population.

No snow to navigate through at the Taconic Outdoor Education Center

A “sort of trans-Atlantic colonization” has happened and continues to happen as well, according to Guthrie. “We still see birds from Europe and Asia coming here and establishing colonies; for example the European Cormorant … Another European immigrant is the European Starling, which was brought over by people. They travel in groups, often trailed by a hawk — the group gives them a denser presence.  These imported birds have an impact on the bluebird population.”

Here are examples Guthrie gave of changes of range for particular species:

Cardinals: It’s now front page news if Cardinals are not seen on a Christmas Bird Count.  Traditionally a southern bird species, in recent decades it’s been here in New York.  It’s not alone. Traditionally, before 1959 or so, you knew you were crossing the Mason-Dixon line if you saw Turkey Vultures. Now, if you cross the Canadian border [southwards] you start seeing them. Also the Tufted Titmouse — they’re right now around the TOEC grounds.  Another southern bird now included in the northeast is the Mockingbird, the state bird of Florida. There used to be great excitement when they showed up. Now you can hear it anytime at night, beginning in April or May.  Also the Carolina Wren was once unheard of in New York and is now a regular visitor, especially if you have a suet feeder in your backyard. The Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher is another southern bird whose range has expanded.  Another one, seen at TOEC is the Red-Bellied Woodpecker. It was never heard of above Maryland until a few years ago, and is now nesting in Long Island. The Laughing Gull, once a South Carolina bird, is found on Long Island and as far north as Yonkers. The Black Vulture, used to be found from South America as far north as South Carolina only. Now they’re here.  The Chestnut-sided Warbler, a bird that John James Audubon did not see in his lifetime — now they are here in New York and are fairly common. Hummingbirds are also now seen in winter in New York State. Keep those feeders out.  They were spotted in Binghamton into early December.

Guthrie also spoke of several species, once on the decline, which are now thriving:

The Great and Snowy Egret, could have been on an endangered species list at the turn of the last century and now they are found regularly in late summer. They are healthily back in the population. Another bird driven to the brink of disaster after being hunted almost to extinction is the Wood Duck.  After game laws came into effect its population is back up again. The Great Cormorant has benefited from the cleaning up of our waterways.  The Peregrine Falcon had virtually disappeared from the northeast because of DDT, but thanks to conservation efforts, it has returned. The Bald Eagle is a happy success story. The Department of Environmental Conservation took a daring approach.  When the numbers declined they said ‘We have an idea.  Let’s go to Alaska, kidnap some eagles, bring them back here and let them loose.  It’s not a folly — birds will come back to where they were born. If we release the eagles in New York they will think they were born there and come back.  It worked!  It has now spread to other states, including Vermont.

At the conclusion of his talk, Guthrie fielded questions from the appreciative audience.  Here are a few:

Q: The Cardinals seem to have disappeared since Hurricane Irene. Is this to be expected?
A: Many have noticed fewer backyard birds than usual.  The storms had little or nil impact.  Birds are used to hurricanes.  More likely the warm weather this winter has made it very easy for them to find food on their own.  They’re not in trouble.

Q: How many northern species have gone south? How about Ravens?
A: Very few. The Raven was not a native bird to New York — maybe pre-colonization only.  Ravens have just come from all over; they’re just finding suitable habitats all over.  What’s interesting is that the southern birds are hanging around the north for the winter.  It’s the northern birds who are moving on.

Q: Are the Loons coming back?
A: Yes.  Awareness, concern and conservation is bringing them back.  The ban on lead-sinker weights in fishing gear is helping tremendously.  Fortunately, positive contributions are making it a resilient population.  Now people know that if you can clearly see the Loon is doing its crazy dance, you’re too close.

Q: Historically, at our farm in the Hudson Highlands, we have Whippoorwills.  They were gone and now they’re back.  Can you enlighten?
A: They are unpredictable. You are lucky because overall their population has declined.  They are typical of the south and this is the northern edge of their range.

Q: Where are the biggest changes in the continuum?
A: We have more bird diversity now than then — the turn of the last century, but the losses will never be regained.  But, many are reclaiming their traditional ranges. These include the Tanager and the Baltimore Oriole, which are not winter birds.

Q: What’s the story on the Red-shouldered Hawk I’ve seen in Lake Peekskill?
A: The Red-shouldered Hawk is different from the Red-Tailed Hawk, which is more cosmopolitan. It is limited to streams and ponds, so they have been overwintering more and more — they’re a Johnny-come-lately to the winter scene.
Photos by A.Rooney

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