By CARL E. FEATHER
ASHTABULA — When area birders take to the fields, forests and feeders at the end of this month, there is a strong possibility they’ll spot species normally found much farther north of Ashtabula County.
That’s the prediction of the National Audubon Society, which sponsors the Christmas Bird Count, and its local coordinator, Marc Hanneman.
“We’re already seeing an invasion of red-breasted nuthatches, which is due to the low mast crop up north,” Hanneman said. “We’ve seen that since Labor Day, and its’ very unusual for those to be here.”
The Audubon Society reports that grosbeaks, finches and nuthatches are irrupting, or increasing quickly in population, in the United States because of the paucity of food in the Canadian forests. That is drawing these seed-eating birds to New England and the Great Lakes region.
“The finches are upon us in good numbers, and there is an all-out invasion under way, the likes of which we haven’t seen in years,” said Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut. “Usually they stay deep within the boreal and sub-boreal wilds of Canada. But in search of food, they can move far south.”
How far south is the big question for the Christmas Bird Count participants. The counts are conducted by volunteers who this year will select one day between Dec. 14, 2012, to Jan. 5, 2013, to scour a designated area from dawn to dusk. Hanneman has selected Dec. 29 for the local count, which can be conducted in the field or, for those who prefer the comfort of their homes, watching a bird feeder from a window.
Hanneman said they are always looking for volunteers who are willing to participate within the count area, a 15-mile radius from the center of Kingsville. The Sam Wharram Nature Club sponsors the local count by paying the participation fee.
With more than 60,000 volunteers, the count is the longest running citizen-science wildlife survey in the world. To further encourage participation, the Audubon Society decreased the participation fee this year. And in an effort to make the event more earth friendly, no paper report will be published in 2013 — it will be a totally digital effort.
Data from the bird count is important in documenting climate change and predicting future effects of that change on the North American bird population. For example, the data from prior counts was used by ornithologists to link seed crop failures in Canada to the surprise sightings in the United States.
“Birds are among the most adaptable species on earth, simply because they can fly, and these irruptions are a fascinating part of the larger migration story,” said Gary Langham, Audubon chief scientist. “These periodic invasions from our feathered friends set off our imaginations — linking our backyards to the vast northern forests — reminding us of the struggle to find food in winter.”
Audubon plans to publish next year a look at potential future bird ranges based on scientific models that illustrate anticipated effects of climate change on hundreds of U.S. and Canadian species, wrote David Yarnold, Audubon president and CEO, in “Audubon” magazine.
Last year, magnificent, 2-foot-tall snowy owls popped up in strange places, including Ashtabula County. The county also had a very rare, Asian, black-tailed gull hang around the lakefront for several weeks, drawing birders from great distances with the hopes of getting a peek. Purple sandpipers, already showing up in the area, also were seen last winter.
“It was an odd year,” Hanneman said. “I don’t know of any snowy owls in the area yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they show up.”
Hanneman said persons who are interested in participating in the day-long bird count on Dec. 29 should call him at 812-5986 for more information.
By CARL E. FEATHER
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