Tips for Fall Bird Observation: Seth Benz

Seth Benz is Director of the Bird Ecology Lab at the Schoodic Education and Research Center of Acadia National Park.Seth Benz is Director of the Bird Ecology Lab at the Schoodic Education and Research Center of Acadia National Park.

Can you explain why bird behavior patterns are relevant to understanding climate change?

Today, birds all over the world are responding to climate change in dramatic ways. For instance, many North American birds are shifting ranges northward, some are altering their time of nesting and others are changing migration routes and patterns. On a global scale, climatic factors are impacting the distribution and abundance of birds because of shifts in food availability, which will ultimately impact survival for species that cannot adapt to changes.

Have scientists observed changes here in Maine?

Perhaps the most dramatic observations here in Maine involve island-nesting seabirds. In many cases, fish species they prefer to feed on are no longer found near nesting areas. In recent years, ocean research instruments have recorded warmer-than-average water temperatures, shifting currents and changes to water pH. These developments are apparently causing shifts in fish productivity and distribution. These circumstances are also thought to be responsible for an incursion of southern species into Gulf of Maine waters, such as Butterfish, Jellyfish. When the correct food is not present, adult birds fail to properly feed their chicks.  The result: baby birds are starving to death. Entire populations of nesting seabirds – three tern species as well as Atlantic puffins – are experiencing declines.

Let’s look specifically at each indicator species. What are some of the fall behaviors to be on the lookout for?

Monitoring indicator species is doubly important during this time of “rapid environmental change” as some scientists call it. The numbers of birds seen and where you find them remain critical to understanding population trends and potential changes. Going a step further to record birds’ eating habits may help scientists understand the timing of both animal-plant and predator-prey interactions.

American Robin: Along with when and where you find them, it is important to observe what these birds consume. We think of robins as worm eaters, but their diet shifts to plants in the fall. Presence and abundance of crab apples and berries such as mountain ash, honeysuckle and serviceberry help scientists understand patterns of migration. Absence of these fruits and berries usually mean absence of robins. Consider entering these findings into the comment box on your data sheets.

Common Loon: Watch for where and how many you see in locations you frequent. Note if loons solitary or in groups. If and when you see them feeding, take an extra moment to determine the category of prey species – fish, crab, or other. Entering these feeding observations into your data sheet comment box may be helpful as we try to better understand loon fitness and survival rates related to the change in season and near-shore habitats.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird: Make sure to note whether you are observing hummingbirds at a feeder or a flower. If you’re making your observation at a feeder, make sure to note how long into the autumn you feed them. And in both cases, be sure to record the last date you see them in fall. Departure date information helps scientists determine if feeding sugar water to the birds delays the timing of their migration.