Migration Stopovers


(This 986th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 14, 2010.)



Region Covered by The Nature Conservancy-New York Audubon Migration Study


No matter what the groundhog said, we're on the upswing toward spring. We'll almost certainly have more storms, but the inevitability of the oncoming season is evident if only from the calendar.


For birders this is the beginning of the most exciting time of year. A number of the hardy species have already returned. Thousands of ducks throng the Niagara River, a major fraction of the national population of canvasbacks among them. And now the dabbling ducks, pintails and ring-necked ducks, are moving in together with beautiful tundra swans. Soon they will be standing on the ice at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge.


Then in a few weeks the tree swallows and migrant bluebirds will arrive.


One of my favorite experiences in late February and early March occurred in 2005 when I stood alone at the edge of an open field in Niagara County. A red-tailed hawk sat silent at the edge of a woodlot and the mournful whistle of a bluebird drifted across the still snow-covered meadow. As if that wasn't satisfying enough, drifting across the field came a mixed flock of snow buntings, horned larks and longspurs. They settled a few yards away where I had a wonderful opportunity to study these lovely little sparrow-sized birds that withstand our harshest weather.


A number of years ago I was also involved with a bird survey along the Ontario lake plains. We visited set spots every week that spring. Those were also excellent experiences as they forced me to get out regularly to study those same spots again and again. Even my small role in that project gave me a better feel for the arrival patterns of migrating birds.


Now this year experienced birders are being asked to participate in the second year of a similar study managed by The Nature Conservancy and Audubon New York, with guidance provided by scientists from Cornell, RIT, Canisius, and Hobart and William Smith. This appears to be a simpler effort for volunteers than that one I worked on. It requires only three or more visits to set spots over the five to six week migration period. Here are excerpts from the study announcement:


"The study sponsors have been working together to help identify and protect critical stopover habitats in the Lake Ontario basin of New York, as well as to improve our understanding of why birds choose to stop in certain places. This past spring and fall, the study team and a group of dedicated volunteers surveyed birds at an array of sites during the migrations, piloting the sampling methods and establishing the first set of study sites. 


"Our intrepid volunteers logged over 5000 birds thus far during 172 site visits, and saw 114 species including high numbers of Blackpoll, Black-Throated Blue, and Chestnut-Sided Warblers; Ovenbirds, Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks and Scarlet Tanagers.  Volunteers also recorded uncommon species like Olive-Sided Flycatchers. Sampling sites are located throughout the region to test hypotheses about the relative importance of proximity to the lakeshore, landscape context (like how much forest is around a site) and habitat structure in determining migratory bird abundance and diversity.


"This is part of a multi-year, five migration season study. Join now to be part of an effort that will help guide conservation, and land and shoreline management for migrating birds."


The project team's rationale for the study include:


            Recent research indicates that migration is the period of highest mortality for neotropical migratory songbirds, and the conservation of these birds requires protecting a network of stopover sites, particularly in highly-altered landscapes like the Lake Ontario watershed.


            Currently, there is only anecdotal information about important stopover sites, and no tool to predict where they occur.  


            There are increasing demands on our shoreline, and having rigorous and accepted information about how migrating birds use the lakeshore is critical for influencing shoreline management and conservation.


The study team promises to work with the schedule of individual volunteers to find sites and sampling periods that work for them. Prior participation in a citizen science effort is not a requirement. They will provide training and funding to cover volunteer travel expenses. 


For more information or to volunteer, contact Laura McCarthy (lmccarthy@audubon.org) or 518-869-9731 by March 15.-- Gerry Rising