The 2018 flight of the Buff-breasted Sandpipers: Data from the West Coast

Buff-breasted Sandpipers breed on the Arctic tundra from western Alaska, across northern Canada, to Baffin Island. They winter eight thousand miles to the south, on the grasslands of the River Plate Basin in Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Their primary migration corridor is east of the Rockies, through the central United States. A secondary route is along the East Coast. They are always rare in fall migration along the West Coast, with four to fourteen individuals counted each fall between 2014 and 2017. In spring, they are almost unheard of (there is one record in eBird from Arcata, California in May, 1980).

Fall migration in 2018 was exceptional on the West Coast, with sixty-five individuals reported, five to ten times the norm. The figure below summarizes eBird data from the past five years in southern British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California.



A few interesting points:

  • While fall migration generally spans from mid-August thru late September, the timing of records within that period are not strongly correlated with latitude.  That is, it does not appear that birds are moving from north to south through the period. Each season’s latest records, from mid or late September, may come from British Columbia or Washington as easily as from southern California. That said, in 2018, the latest records are indeed from southern California. Moreover, the very few October records over the years (not included in the graph) are from southern California.
  • They are most reliable in the Pacific Northwest, only reaching California in years of relative abundance, such as 2018. The only location with records from every year is Salmon Arm Bay of Shuswap Lake, in the interior of British Columbia. Other sites, with records in all but one year, are Boundary Bay, British Columbia, and the south coast of Washington (e.g. Ocean Shores, Gray’s Harbor vicinity).
  • The vast majority of records are of single individuals. The only time more than four birds were documented together during these years was in 2018, with five birds at once at Sauvie Island, Oregon, and a remarkable thirteen at Boundary Bay.
  • In the years 2014-2017, Buff-breasted Sandpipers first appeared between August 15 and 19. In 2018, they did not appear until August 23, and most were relatively later than birds in previous years.
  • In 2018, there were several records from offshore California: one from the Farallons, two from San Clemente Island, and two birds seen together from a pelagic trip one hundred miles off southern California. These were all relatively early in migration, between August 25 and September 1. In contrast, most 2018 records from the Oregon coast were from the first week of September.



California apocalypse again: Large wildfires increasing with climate change


Sunset from the Central Valley, looking toward the Coast Range through the smoke of a million trees.

As I write this, helicopters are passing overhead in a dim gray-brown sky. The sun is a pink orb over the western horizon. It is 97 degrees at 7pm. The people of California sit like frogs in a slowly boiling pot.

Average temperature for July and August, here in Davis, is 93 degrees. But in the past 34 days, it was only below that six times. July 2018 was the hottest month in the history of the state.

Such climate change was predicted, with great accuracy, by both oil companies and government scientists back in the 1980s, and even earlier.  The consequences of this included more extreme weather, more drought, shorter rainy seasons, earlier snow melt, longer fire seasons, and larger fires. All that is coming to pass in such dramatic fashion that new records are set each year.

CA fires1In 1988, scientists were excited– and alarmed– to see the first indications of a warming climate. Now, graphs illustrating climate change need no statistical analysis. They are obvious to a child, ramping steeply up with each passing year.

CA fires2

A conservative talking point seems to be that this dramatic increase in fires is not due to climate change, but to poor forest management. While this has been an issue for over a hundred years, this question was the prime focus of Westerling et al 2006 in Science, where he concluded that longer hotter summers and shorter drier winters were indeed to blame. There were increased fires even in areas without poor management– or any management at all. Where there has been poor forest management, climate warming has acted as a “force multiplier” to make fires even worse. One could only imagine how easy it would be to write that paper now, twelve years later, with plenty of new eye-popping data points.  Thirteen of California’s 20 largest fires have occurred since Westerling sent his paper to the publisher.

Perhaps the best illustration of the combined effect of poor forest management and climate change comes from this 14-minute Ted talk given by Paul Hessburg in 2017.

Using a useful forest diagram, he explains how Native Americans regularly burned underbrush and maintained an open forest/meadow ecosystem that effectively prevented large wildfires. In the late 1800s, with the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, the advent of cattle that ate the grass, and the US Forest Service suppressing fires and logging the largest trees, our forests changed from a mosaic of tough old trees surrounded by natural fire breaks to a solid crop of young growth. Add drought, heat, and an ignition source, and you see the results above.

CA fires3

The solution, regardless of how much you attribute large fires to climate change or management, is the same. We need to re-create the balance of the past thru the protection of large trees and prescribed burns. We need to create meadows and healthy forests. Some Native communities in northern California are planning to do this.

This all assumes that we get enough rain in winter and cool temps in summer to allow re-growth. Otherwise, the current fires may be transforming California’s mountain habitats into something resembling the mountains of Nevada and Arizona in the span of a decade.

Birders detect dramatic changes as Davis climate warms

[A version of this was originally published in the Davis Enterprise.]

In 2002, the cover of The New York Times Magazine featured a silhouetted man standing on frosty mauve ice and staring through binoculars into a rosy polar sky. The title read, davis1“Watching the World Melt Away: The future as seen by a lonely scientist at the end of the earth.” The article was about seabird biologist George Divoky and his decades of work studying the black guillemot, a high arctic seabird, on Cooper Island off the coast of Barrow, Alaska. The guillemots were struggling to feed their chicks. Their preferred food, Arctic cod, lived at the edge of the sea ice. In the past, this was five miles from the island. Now it was thirty. Divoky, moreover, found himself sharing his tiny island with several hungry polar bears stranded by the vast expanse of open water. At the time, the story was one of the first concrete examples of climate change impacting an ecosystem in way that was easily seen and understood.

Sac Valley winter avg temps SH

Sixteen years later, birders in Yolo County are now witnessing those kinds of changes at our latitude. Winters are suddenly filled with species previously associated with warmer climates to the south, while some other winter visitors no longer come this far south. In the summer, new species are arriving from more arid regions and have started nesting locally.


Orchard Oriole in Davis, December 2017

A shift of a few degrees may not seem like much, but a winter above freezing makes autumn fruit and berries available longer, resulting in a plentiful food supply. This past December, birders were astounded to find eight species of warblers and three species of orioles in the county at once. Normal would be three and zero, respectively. These birds are neotropical migrants, spending the summer nesting in the northern United States and Canada, and wintering in Southern California, Mexico, or Central and South America. In the last few years, Cassin’s vireos, black-throated gray warblers, and blue-gray gnatcatchers have been present at many locations throughout the cold months. It is now possible to find hooded orioles and western tanagers year-round. Last winter, rarities like orchard oriole, northern waterthrush, and palm warbler turned up and stayed for weeks or months. The prevalence of unusual over-wintering migrants has enabled birders to rack up quite a winter list. Holly Coates shattered previous “big year” records by tallying 200 species in Yolo County by March 20 this year.

neotrop migrants graphThe Putah Creek Christmas Bird Count, an annual effort to count all the birds in a 15-mile diameter circle near Winters on one day each December, has tracked winter bird populations since 1971. In recent years, the number of neotropical migrants found on the count has swelled. These include warbling vireo and Wilson’s and Townsend’s warblers, in addition to the species mentioned above. Perhaps the most dramatic shift in the count data has been with the turkey vulture. With the absence of tule fog, these birds, which rely on warm thermals to give them some lift, have gone from sparse, rarely more than 15 birds on a count through 1985, to over 150 individuals per count in each of the past eight years.

turkey vulture graphA warming climate is expected to create more increases than decreases in bird life in Yolo County. This is because species diversity is greatest in the tropics. As bird ranges shift north, we expect to see more arrivals than departures. Among the departures are some northern species that are growing scarcer in winter. Most notable is rough-legged hawk, a tundra species that journey south to agricultural areas to eat rodents in winter. They have, however, become decidedly hard to find in recent years, perhaps finding the Willamette Valley and other more northern valleys suitable for their wintering grounds. Another species to watch is the beautiful cedar waxwing, which descend on fruits and berries in the winter months. The more they can find food in the north, the less likely they will come this far south.  They are erratic from year to year, however, so it is too early to identify a trend.

Though less dramatic, our hotter summers have brought some changes as well. Great-tailed grackles have expanded up the Central Valley from the Salton Sea. Say’s phoebes, which previously nested only south of the Delta in the Central Valley, moved into Napa and Solano Counties in 2014. Perhaps they are focusing on certain species of insects. This spring, Michael Perrone found them nesting in Davis and Joan Humphrey discovered them feeding young in Woodland, representing first nesting records for the county.

The Yolo Audubon Society is currently revising its Checklist of the Birds of Yolo County, a useful little booklet that will list all 369 species recorded in the county, each with a bar chart showing their abundance through the year. The last version, published in 2004, had a special section called “Recent Changes” highlighting the wetland restoration projects at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area and Davis Wetlands. In the coming 2018 version, the Recent Changes section will focus on two big issues: the expansion of orchards and our changing climate. Perrone, author of that section, states that “winters have become milder. In particular, prolonged periods of cold, all-day tule fog have ceased, giving way to sunnier weather.” Davis birders may not be standing on the edge of the continent looking at retreating sea ice, but nevertheless, in the last few years they have witnessed dramatic changes in bird distributions. A look at the graphs, moreover, suggests these changes began before that article about Alaska was published.