I recently spent a morning near Idaho City counting birds for a population monitoring program called Climate Watch. I do this every year in January. The temperature was 19 degrees, and although Mores Creek was flowing, much of it was more like a slushy bordered by small glaciers.
I wrote at length about climate change issues in three consecutive columns, beginning on Aug. 25, 2022, so I won’t repeat those details here. My purpose today is to explain just one example of how we are monitoring climate change and how citizen scientists can and do contribute.
The protocol for Climate Watch is to stop at 12 spots selected earlier according to certain criteria, and count all the birds seen or heard for five minutes. This year, after standing in the woods for an hour all told, I had exactly one common raven and one American dipper. There were no birds on 10 of my 12 stops. Exciting stuff, no? On the upside, it was a beautiful day, and my wife and I got a great lunch in Idaho City. Plus, our dog, Sienna, seemed to enjoy a dozen brief outings, never mind birds or no birds.
You may be wondering why I would do that? Why not just drive to Idaho City, have lunch, and call it good? To put it in bold terms, because of the future of the planet.
Climate Watch is a climate monitoring program that uses birds as indicators of what’s happening on earth. We’ve appreciated for a long time that birds are especially good indicators of environmental conditions. They are sensitive to all types of disturbances, many species require specific habitat conditions, and they are relatively easy to monitor. Imagine trying to use mammals (mostly out at night), fish (hiding in the water), or amphibians or reptiles (not out in winter). Most species of birds are out during the day, and at least some of the time they send out vocal signals saying, “I’m here and I’m species X.”
Climate Watch was developed by the National Audubon Society in 2016. The idea was to harness the birders of North America to count particular bird species to see if their abundance and/or distribution is changing and if any such changes can be connected to a changing climate. Finding cause-effect relationships is often the biggest science treasure you can find. As I’ve written many times, nature is complex, or, as I prefer, “messy.” An enormous array of correlations among things can often be found, but discovering causes is another matter.
Although we count and report all the birds we detect, Climate Watch has a short list of target species. These are the eastern, western, and mountain bluebird, the red-breasted, white-breasted, brown-headed and pygmy nuthatch, American and lesser goldfinch, eastern and spotted towhee, and painted bunting.
These species were selected for several reasons. They are charismatic and easy to identify. This opens Climate Watch monitoring to those who may not normally watch birds. Anyone can quickly learn to identify these birds. This is classic citizen science.
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Another feature is that they live in the U.S. in winter and summer. There is also a summer Climate Watch protocol, with sampling locations in other places. I don’t run my Idaho City counts in summer. Because these species are here year-round, we can exclude factors which might occur outside the U.S. Finally, across all these species, most of the continental U.S. is covered by one or more of the target birds.
The Climate Watch program stems from an Audubon report, Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink. In addition to the report itself, Audubon has put up a very nice interactive website (audubon.org) where you can enter a ZIP code or state and then see what sort of future you can expect for a number of bird species in that geographic area under three warming scenarios — increases of 1.5, 2.0, and 3.0 degrees Celsius.
For example, when I put in my ZIP code (83703), I see that under the most extreme temperature increase of 3.0 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit), 31 species are expected to be highly vulnerable to extirpation as a result of impacts during summer. Another 44 species are predicted to be moderately vulnerable.
Selecting mountain bluebird as an example, the model predicts this species will lose 53% of its total summer range, not just in Idaho, but across its entire summer range. This loss is only slightly offset by a predicted increase in range of 9% elsewhere. But all of the increase will be in Canada. This conforms to a general prediction that species will move north and upslope, if they can. But they can’t move in any direction if their preferred habitat is not there. So, some/many species may get squeezed out.
Looking at an example from winter for my ZIP, Audubon lists nine species as being highly vulnerable. These include the American dipper, a species people love to see while hiking and camping in the Idaho mountains. Dippers are predicted to lose 54% of their winter range. As with mountain bluebirds, this will only be slightly offset by a gain of 5% elsewhere. “Elsewhere” is in the far north of Canada and in Alaska.
A key piece of Climate Watch is that we are testing predictions. Audubon has created the models mentioned above, and thousands more, and they make specific predictions about exactly where a given species will increase or decrease over future years. I’m standing in the freezing temperatures along Mores Creek, not expecting to see species increase or decrease before my eyes. Rather, I’m helping establish a baseline for that time and place. Because these sorts of population trends are typically slow to be revealed, it may take years or even decades to see what the trend is.
Birds are notoriously variable over short periods of time and over small distances. A superb example in the Treasure Valley this winter is the American robin. We have a lot this winter — flocks of dozens or even hundreds have been seen all over the place. But that means exactly nothing about robin population trends. All it means is that there are a lot, here, now. It’s only over long periods of time and over larger geographical spaces even than southwestern Idaho that we can figure out long-term trends.
Target species for my Climate Watch points are the mountain bluebird and red-breasted nuthatch. Since I started in 2019, I haven’t seen or heard even one of either species over 60 times standing for five minutes with my binoculars and warmest clothes. Are these birds coming? Have they already been there and left? Will they come and go? Stay tuned and be patient. We will find out. What we can or will do about it is an entirely different question.