We never know exactly when it’s going to happen, but every year there’s a time when the emails start pouring in, the phone keeps ringing, and all everyone wants to know is: Where are the birds? My last column was a timely precursor to this, answering a question about a lack of dark-eyed juncos at bird feeders. But the inquiries just keep coming, so let’s talk some more about where the birds are right now.

First, let me assure you that the birds are OK. We should keep in mind that most birds are seeing long-term population declines, especially grassland birds and insectivores. Those declines are well-documented over the past half century thanks to surveys, including breeding bird surveys and Christmas bird counts. So it is important to note the difference between the sudden disappearances of birds around our homes and the long-term changes that are happening around the region.

A good comparison would be the way we talk about climate, rather than weather, when talking about global warming. We can step outside one day and say “It’s cold!” but instead, using records dating back to 1850, we can look at how each year since 2015 has been warmer than any year prior.

The other important thing to acknowledge is how biased or skewed our observations are. Most of the people we hear from, seeing a lack of birds, are just looking around their own yards. As I wrote about before, with the paucity of juncos, those birds are currently taking advantage of the abundance of natural food thanks to the lack of snow cover on the ground. They have no need to go to our feeders. In most cases, the birds in question are out there; they are just not as easily detected.

A good way to look at a larger sample than we may be getting from our backyards is Cornell’s eBird site, an online database for bird sightings. One of the many features on this site is the ability to look through data in nearly real-time and see summaries that give us a good understanding of birds within a geographic area, like comparing frequency and abundance of species over recent years. Many people are mentioning a lack of Northern cardinals lately. Looking at eBird records, there is virtually no difference in their frequency (what percentage of lists they are reported on) or abundance (the average number reported on those lists).

And though I said we should consider climate, not weather, let’s go ahead and look at the actual weather lately. The lack of snow on the ground is making it easy for birds to find plenty of food, especially seeds, that would normally be covered by snow in early January. We’ve also had some really warm days lately, which allow for some hardy invertebrates to be active. While out birding on multiple days above 40 degrees around the New Year, I encountered spiders, caterpillars and flies moving around. These protein-rich food sources are going to be the top choices for most birds in Maine. So, with insects at the top of the menu, followed by naturally occurring seeds and fruit (winterberry is ripening up now), the seeds in your feeders are likely to be one of the lesser-desired foods at the moment. Fear not! Those top choices will become scarce, and the cardinals will return to your black oil sunflower seeds, I promise.

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WHY HAVE RARE BIRDS COME HERE?

Northern lapwings are European shorebirds with long head plumes and bold black-and-white undersides. At least six of them made their way to Maine in late December. Doug Hitchcox photo

Speaking of climate change and biases … I wanted to quickly resolve a common misconception about rare birds that show up in Maine, especially a few notable recent ones. In the past month or so, we’ve hosted some really cool rare-to-Maine birds, some that are thousands of miles off course. I often hear, or, more commonly, read on Facebook speculations as to why the birds are here, and an assertion that it “must be due to climate change.” While our warming planet will affect the range of many birds (many are slowly expanding their ranges northward), the phenomena of individuals or small groups of birds showing up in bizarre places can be caused by many things, and is generally a natural part of range expansion. Let’s look at a couple of recent examples.

Northern lapwings are European shorebirds that look like a plover who has had an extreme makeover. With their long head plumes, bold black-and-white undersides, and purplish-green backs, they are stunning, and at least six made their way to Maine in late December. These birds made it here thanks to perfect (from a birder’s perspective) weather conditions when a large low-pressure system was sitting over the North Atlantic. Low-pressure systems turn counter-clockwise, so you can imagine how a lapwing migrating from northern Europe could catch these winds blowing west across the Atlantic, and get sling-shotted over here. They’ll likely overwinter, probably a bit farther south where they can find open fields, then work their way north, and hopefully back to Europe, in the spring.

Maine Audubon is happily hosting a sage thrasher that was found on one of our Thursday morning bird walks at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth (the walks take place every Thursday at 8 a.m.). This is only the second time that one of these western sagebrush dwelling mimids (same family as mockingbirds) has been seen in Maine, though they have established a pattern of fall/winter vagrancy to the northeast. While they’d typically be migrating from their summer range in the states west of the Rockies to southwestern states and into Mexico, the occasional vagrant comes east. This is apparently an example of misorientation, when (to oversimplify) a bird flies in the wrong direction. New Hampshire had its first sage thrasher a couple of winters ago, and Massachusetts has had five records, all fitting within this pattern.

We also had a couple of western hummingbirds make it to Maine this fall/winter. The first record for New England of a broad-tailed hummingbird was one that began visiting a feeder in Freeport in early November, and lingered into December. This was a young bird, perhaps another misorientation example, unlike a rufous hummingbird that was found in Dayton around the same time. The rufous was an adult female, one that possibly has come east before. Over the past few decades, rufous hummingbirds have increasingly been found overwintering in southeastern states, rather than their normal wintering areas in southern Mexico. Those that survive farther north are perhaps faster to return to breeding areas and more productive. This is a great example of birds, once thought to be rare vagrants, that are now carving out new parts of their range and apparently being successful. You can see a video on maineaudubon.org of how we, with the help of a licensed hummingbird bander, banded the rufous hummingbird. We can’t wait to see if she is found anywhere else, or maybe even comes back next year.

Do you have a nature question for Doug? Email questions to [email protected] and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about birding, native plants, and programs and events focusing on Maine wildlife and habitat. Doug and other naturalists lead free bird walks on Thursday mornings, 8 to 10 a.m., at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Sanctuary in Falmouth.


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