I live in Winchester, Massachusetts. I’m an avid birder, which takes me to where the birds go, in New England, and then also out into other parts of the country. I bird a lot in Massachusetts – in Ipswich, on the Cape, or on Plum Island, but I’m particularly interested in warblers, so every spring I end up following them to a little island in Maine called Monhegan Island over Memorial Day Weekend. After that, I go out to parts of the US like Lake Erie. I would say the Spring and Fall migrations are the most important parts of the year for birders.
The birding community is interesting, because while there are people you might see from year to year, everybody’s there for the birds, so basically if you’re in a particular place at a particular time, like Monhegan Island in May, everybody who puts on a pair of binoculars is “part of the community.” At that point, when we interact with each other, it’s all about what did you see, and where did you see it. Plum Island is another spot like that. There are some formal groups that you can bird with, but I’m not really part of any of them.
I’ve been birding in New England for around 40 years now, and over that time, I’ve started to notice a few specific changes. First of all, I would always do a trip to Woods Hole in Falmouth around mid-March, and it was always the first time I’d see robins. These days, you see robins all winter long! Another big one is the Carolina Wren – hearing one of those was unusual. You didn’t hear them at all, or only very, very rarely, but now it’s pretty common to see them around. More generally, when I go to Monhegan Island, I’m seeing warblers there that we never saw that far north before.
We’re hearing about this sort of thing more often, too, so it seems unlikely that it’s just a few outliers being more widely reported. As a birder, I’m almost anticipating it now – it used to be you’d never even consider looking for a species from farther south, but now you might say, “well, it could be here!” So when you’re trying to identify a bird, you have to broaden your search. You can’t discount birds because of their historical location, because changes in weather patterns and wind patterns might be bringing them north.
I don’t know if there’s a trend for sure – I don’t know how to think about that. There appears to be more evidence of these things happening, and now it’s not just once in a lifetime you see a bird out of place – it seems more common now.
All of these changes, and the temperature differences which ultimately affect food availability for birds - which has a big impact on where they end up being - my guess is that it’s all climate related, but I don’t know that there’s been enough time yet to really say hard and fast that these changes are climate related. That said, there’s data about green-up – plants opening up earlier in the spring as temperatures rise, and that would indicate food availability for birds, so my own personal view is that it’s due to the changing climate. It’s obvious that something is happening, and the only question is whether it’s human caused. It seems to me that rather than worrying about why the climate is changing, we should worry about what we’re going to do about it.
I think it’s important, in the long run, to base our understanding of this issue on evidence, rather than personal observation. We need to be able to compare what we’re seeing to actual data. I think that part of the problem we’re facing is that people aren’t feeling the evidence for themselves, so they’re rejecting what doesn’t seem right based on their experience. People need to go on more than just “well, you know, two years ago in Boston we had this huge snowstorm, we had ice all winter, nothing’s changing, based on my personal experience.” I think we’ve got to get to the hard data.
Most birders are in agreement that something’s going on, but in the field, which is where I usually interact with other birders, most of the discussions are something along the lines of, “what’s that bird?” rather than climate change. I think that given who birders are, though, they tend to be more environmentally conscious. These people pay attention to environmental issues, and they’ve got a connection to nature, and they drive Priuses.
Personally, when it comes to action, I’m intrigued by the idea of whether you can change a community. One example I found really interesting was the island of Vinalhaven, and its attempts to become carbon neutral. It’s the whole idea of moving beyond the level of driving a Prius instead of an SUV, or changing lightbulbs, and onto a level of taking action that will have a different sort of impact. It gets to the point where nothing that you can do seems big enough, and nothing that’s big enough seems doable. I think changing the scale of the problem might be one way forward. Don’t think of it as being so outrageously huge, and maybe it will seem like something that a community can get together and solve.
I think when it comes down to it, really solving the problem is going to take big policy changes, but that still leaves us with the question of what you can do as an individual. I think that groups like Mass Audubon could help there, with outreach. If somebody said, “here are five ways YOU can help resolve the problem,” and it’s something doable, then I think that might help. How do you contribute, and how does what you’re doing end up really making a difference? I think that’s the question – the line that needs to be drawn.