Some spring birds are here, prompting questions

Thu, 02/27/2020 - 5:15pm
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It really wasn’t much of a winter on Block Island — or hasn’t been so far — which prompted recent postings on social media about the appearance of birds that usually arrive in the spring. Was this the effect of global warming? Was it in fact not really an anomaly at all?

The Block Island Times decided to turn to our local naturalist, Kim Gaffett, to find out what is happening.

“It’s been a warm winter... birds may be calling,” she said, but the warm weather may also mean that “people may be outside more” and hearing birds they might not normally hear if they were cooped up inside.

It was the appearance of the red winged-blackbirds that caught some people’s attention. Gaffett said she heard one on Feb. 8. “On a sunny day, you can hear them,” but she added, “I don’t think the red-winged black birds are here early.”

Bird species common to the island year-round include robins, Carolina wrens, song sparrows, and chickadees, just to name a few.

The warmer air “is triggering them to be more active and to start their territorial calls,” Gaffett said. The birds will then start mating in the spring. “Spring is the time period for hearing mating and territorial calls, not winter,” she said.

Gaffett also said she had not seen any migratory birds yet.

“When I go out, the first migrants I will see are increased numbers of white throated sparrow, ruby crown kinglet, blue gray gnat catcher — those are the early ones. Some of the birds that are here, hermit thrush, and then we’ll see a bump-up of them. People have been hearing woodcock, but again, it has been heard on the nice, warm evenings. Some of these birds, like woodcock, robin, and bluebirds, they are weak migrants — they only go as far south as they need to. They often will move back north, they are all weather dependent. The fact that we had a warm winter is contributing.”

Gaffett said she is also seeing some trends in decling populations in certain birds, but there are no easy answers.

“What is happening to the bird population is still an open question. Habitat loss is a big problem, changing climate, which is sometimes a contributing factor to loss of habitat. Humans are a contributing factor,” she said.

From a previous Block Island Times article in 2017 written by Gaffett, the myrtle warbler is an example of an island bird that has faced population decline on the island.

“Consider the myrtle warbler (a.k.a. yellow-rumped warbler): 22,034 individual myrtle warblers have been banded at the B.I. Bird Banding station between 1967 and 2016. But the decline trend of this species is easily seen when the number of myrtle warblers banded is totaled by decade: Myrtle warblers banded: 9,759 (1967-1976); 3,633 (1977-1986); 4,219 (1987-1996); 3,617 (1997-2006); 808 (2007-2016). (Statistics are thanks to the hard work of Steve Rienert, a dedicated volunteer to the B.I. Banding Station.)

Gaffett shared her thoughts on how to help in preserving the birds’ habitats and environments from human impacts.

“We should be using much more renewable energy for our homes, not only lighting but heating and cooling. Driving less, or we should be promoting public transportation. Not using as much plastic in our lives.” But she understood this was not going to be easy. “This all necessitates a big social shift, which is pretty hard to do. But I do believe everyone can do something, no matter how little it is,” she said. “You can be a model, and make it okay for others, that you’re not the only one out there.

Bird banding season and upcoming programs

With spring and summer arriving soon, Gaffett will begin her bird banding programs, which are open to the public.

“I start bird banding around the third week in April,” but she said she’ll hold off capturing the birds for banding if the weather is not cooperating.

“In the spring, I will start off slow, and do mornings, every morning that I can for the first couple of weeks. The real migration will start pushing through early May and mid May, leading into daylong bird banding programs. Towards the end of May, I might go back to mornings. I focus on migrating birds in the spring, and stop at the end of May for spring migration depending on the weather,” she said, pointing out that in the spring, birds tend to come with a southwest wind. In the fall, birds follow a northwest wind.

“People are welcome to visit at the bird banding station at Clayhead, and I am always happy to introduce people to birds. If I am there, people are welcome to stop by and I’m happy to show what I have at the moment,” Gaffett said.

Some programs Gaffett leads include the Crazy as a Coot program, which is held on the first and third Tuesday of every month from October to June. From spring through summer, Gaffett oversees the bird banding programs. In spring, Gaffett can be found at the bird banding station at Clayhead until the end of May. In July and August, Gaffett holds the bird-banding program at the Ocean View Foundation Pavilion.

To learn more about Gaffett’s studies with the island birds, and the programs, she can be reached by email at Kim.gaffett@tnc.org. Programs and upcoming events are also listed on The Block Island Times and The Nature Conservancy calendar on their website.