3:24 minutes (1.63 MB)
Download this Episode
Large numbers of Arctic birds have made their way to northeastern states in recent months. Although it's not unusual for these birds to come south in the winter looking for food, ornithologists say it's rare to see so many species.
As part of a collaboration with Northeast stations, Bud Lowell reports:
Bird watchers, like June Summers of the Genesee Valley Audubon Society in Rochester, NY, will go out of their way to get a glimpse of some uncommon species.
Summers pointed out about 20 black and white ducks paddling in the icy chop. "These are Long Tail ducks,” she said, standing on the edge of Lake Ontario. “They're definitely a more arctic species. They're an absolutely striking ducks."
Long Tailed Ducks usually breed along sea coasts and large mountain lakes in Alaska, northern Canada, and Russia. This winter, they've come further south and west than usual. And they're not the only species that have come further south this winter.
The Arctic Snowy Owl has been seen in unusual numbers across the northeast, and even as far south as Virginia. Summers said finches like Pine Siskins and White Winged Crossbills that feed on pine cones in the far northern forests have come south, too.
"We don't see this many of them normally,” she said, trudging through the fresh snow. “We see a few each year, but the number of flocks in the Rochester area and in New York is enormous - all sorts of sightings of them everywhere. It must be a pretty tough winter up north. I personally thought it was a pretty tough winter here."
Milan Bull of the Connecticut Audubon Society said birds such as the winter finches are grocery shopping:
"The food sources for all these birds are cyclical, and when the cycle is down, as far as the winter finches are concerned, and the pine cones are down in the boreal forests, the finches move further south.” Bull said the same is true for Snowy Owls, except their main food is lemmings.
When birds leave their home turf looking for food, scientists call it an "eruptive migration." Some people may think it has something to do with climate change, but Wes Hochaka of the Cornell University Ornithology Laboratory said this has happened every couple of years since the last ice age.
"These are birds that have, for generations, faced fluctuating food supplies,” he said, “and their solution to the problem is to stay as far north as possible, but if you have to, move south. And potentially move very, very far south."
But Hochaka said conservationists are tracking these eruptions, because if northern species start showing up more and more frequently every winter instead of every few winters, it might indicate climate change at work.
Another rare bird sighting has raised additional questions. This year, bird watchers saw two adult Ivory Gulls on the Massachusetts coast, and one was sighted last winter in Rhode Island.
Wayne Peterson, director of the Important Bird Area Program for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, said this is very rare.
"Now, since I've been birding - and I’ve been birding since I was a child - there have only been three or four Ivory Gulls have been seen in Massachusetts. That goes back to the sixties.”
And Peterson noted the Ivory Gulls have shown up in the Northeast at a time when their numbers are declining in the arctic. Wildlife experts are trying to figure out what their arrival here this winter means.