Carolina Wren + Climate Change vs the Polar Vortex

Like so many species, the Carolina Wren is expanding northward. And, like many of those species, this expansion started decades ago, before any measurable climate change, but has exploded in the past decades with climate change.

This phenomenon is most obvious – and even dramatic – among non-migratory species and short-distance migrants. The same thing is happening in the West (e.g. Anna’s Hummingbird, Turkey Vulture, Red-shouldered Hawk, Great Egret, California Scrub-Jay, Black Phoebe, Townsend’s Warbler, and others).

The Carolina Wren has been expanding north since the 1800s due to habitat recovery after deforestation (Haggerty and Morton, 2020 – the Birds of North America (BNA) species account). What makes the recent Carolina Wren data so interesting is that we can clearly see, in its expansion into Canada, its battle with winter weather conditions.

The raw number of Carolina Wrens reported on Christmas Bird Counts in Canada. Over 95% of these come from southern Ontario. The cold waves marked on the graph were particularly record-breaking and long-lasting.

The species is known for “decimation… by severe winter conditions” (BNA) at the northern limits of its range. The same account notes that “severe winters have apparently been infrequent enough during the 20th century to allow populations to expand and move northward.” Indeed, one of the key conclusions of an analysis of climate change in southern Ontario was that there has been “a decrease in the frequency of cold temperature extremes”.  While the wren is aided against cold snaps by bird feeders, the climate trend, at least in Canada, is in its favor. The report noted an overall average increase of 1.5C.

eBird abundance map. The Carolina Wren has primarily been a species of edge habitat associated with moist southern forests.

As the wren expanded, certain record-breaking and persistent cold waves knocked the population back, where it restarted. It’s also clear that it is restarting from a higher position each time, thus building its numbers and continuing its expansion.

The cold snaps denoted on the graph were particularly severe in southern Ontario. A more detailed look at weather data may reveal a more complicated pattern and even greater correlation to warmer winters.

Predicted range changes for Carolina Wren by National Audubon under 1.5C scenario. This map is fairly accurate as the bird continues to colonize the St. Lawrence River corridor.
eBird map for December 2021 showing colonization from Toronto to Ottawa and Montreal and nearly to Quebec City.
A Carolina Wren fluffed up against the cold. Pic from National Audubon website.

The decline of Mountain Plovers in two graphs

I live in Yolo County, California, near Sacramento, where Mountain Plovers used to be an annual winter specialty. Searching for “dirt clods with legs”, we used to be able to find dozens of these unique shorebirds, sometimes over a hundred.

Those days are over. They are now “irregular”, meaning we don’t find them every year. We’ve struck out five of the last eleven years. Before that, we averaged a high count of 72 individuals. The first graph, built from records in the Yolo Audubon Society newsletter, emails to the Central Valley Birds listserv, and eBird, shows the high count each winter in Yolo County.



This second graph backs out a bit in space and time, looking at all Mountain Plovers worldwide, starting in 1980. They are a bird of the steppe, breeding mostly on the Great Plains between the Rockies and the flat lands, between the Canadian and Mexican borders. They winter in open country in a vast arc west and south of there, mostly in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

MOPL cbc

All the Christmas Bird Counts nationwide, plus Mexico, averaged 728 birds per count thru 1994, but have never hit that mark since. Fewer than 200 individuals have been enumerated six of the last ten years. Adjusted for party hours, the graph basically looks the same.

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.