Heading south for winter, more birds are choosing the Pacific Northwest

Many papers predict that bird ranges will shift northward with a warming climate (Wu et al 2018, Langham et al 2015).

Many studies have already documented that this is happening (Illán et al. 2014, Virkkala, R. and A. Lehikoinen 2014, Hitch and Leberg 2007, and La Sorte and Thompson 2007).

And some have documented poleward range shifts specifically for wintering ranges (Saunders et al 2022, Hampton 2019, Paprocki et al 2017, Prince and  Zuckerberg 2016, and Paprocki et al 2014).

I’ve previously written about an increase in insectivore bird species in winter associated with a warming climate in the Sacramento Valley. As the Putah Creek Christmas Bird Count (CBC) compiler, it was hard not to notice the trends. Cassin’s Vireo, Black-throated Gray and Townsend’s Warblers, and Western Tanagers were becoming more expected in winter. We had crossed a threshold; we didn’t get freezes anymore. My bougainvillea and cape honeysuckle, which previously clung to life in winter, were now growing and blooming year-round. Fruit and insects were available to these birds.

Now in Port Townsend, Washington, we set a local CBC record for Yellow-rumped Warblers last year. This caused me to take a closer look at the data, focusing on Passerines that are rare or uncommon, and at the northern edge of their wintering range. They are: Hermit Thrush, Cedar Waxwing, Lincoln’s Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. For each of these, the PNW is at the northern limits of their wintering range.

I looked at their numbers and trends on the Portland, Olympia, Seattle, Bellingham, and Vancouver BC CBCs since the 76th CBC (winter 1975-76). I’ve got more notes on my methodology at the end.

Results

All have increased since 1975, generally with the uptick beginning in the 1990s. Here are the results of my inquiry.

The range maps are from eBird’s Abundance Maps. Red=summer; blue=winter; purple=year-round; yellow=migration. The graphs show the birds per party hour across the five CBCs, taking the total number of birds and dividing by the total number of hours across all five counts.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush has been increasing at a rate of 4.2% per year across all the CBCs. It has been increasing across all five of the counts, most strongly in Vancouver (4.1% annual growth) and most tepid in Seattle (0.6%). The overall average   It is most common on the Portland count, which has averaged 26 Hermit Thrushes per count since 2009.

Cedar Waxwing

Of the six species I focused on, Cedar Waxwing showed some of the most erratic growth, averaging only 2.5% per year. That said, it has been above average 8 of the last 9 years. To illustrate the unpredictable nature of waxwings, they have actually been declining on the Olympia (-2.3%/yr) and Vancouver (-4.1%/yr) counts. They are increasing the most on the Portland count (3.0%/yr).

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow has been increasing steadily, from near zero, at an overall rate of 3.6% per year. To put this in perspective, these five CBCs tallied 5 or fewer individuals, summed across all counts, in each of the first five years of this analysis. In each of the last five years, these counts, in aggregate, tallied between 34 and 52 individuals. Growth has been strongest on the Olympia count (4.6%/yr) and weakest on the Bellingham count (1.7%/yr).

White-crowned Sparrow

Despite the eBird map, White-crowned Sparrow is a regular overwintering species in the PNW. The five counts, in aggregate, tally between 100 and 750 individuals each year. They’ve been increasing at a rate of 1.8% per year, strongest in Seattle (3.1%/yr) and weakest in Vancouver (-2.5%/yr, the only count with declining numbers).

Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler has seen dramatic increases, averaging 5.0% per year, highest in Olympia (7.2%/yr) and lowest in Bellingham (3.2%/yr). The numbers, however, are still small. Aggregate numbers across all counts were zero five of the first eleven years of this analysis (easily seen on the graph). Double digits were not reached until 1999. The last ten years, however, have averaged 15 individuals across all the counts, making this an expected species in winter now.  

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler wins the award for poster child of species increasing in winter at the northern edge of their wintering range. They’ve been increasing at a rate of 5.3% per year. Interestingly, this growth is concentrated in the south. Portland (3.7%/yr), Olympia (3.4%/yr), and Seattle (6.1%/yr) have seen the most growth, while Bellingham (-0.5%) and Vancouver (-5.0%) have seen declines. Perhaps those Fraser River winds are too cold for warblers. 

Methodology

The data includes bird per party hour for the Portland, Olympia, Seattle, Bellingham, and Vancouver BC Christmas Bird Counts from the 75th count (winter 1975-76) to the 120th count (winter 2019-20). The 121st count was impacted by the pandemic.

CBC (and Breeding Bird Survey) data is uniquely advantageous for looking at long-term trends such as climate change, as they both go back many decades with generally similar effort over time (for certain well-established counts). Nevertheless, there were some issues with this data:

  • I did not use the Portland data from the 76th thru the 82nd count, due to aberrantly low party hours relative to later counts.
  • The following data was missing entirely from the Audubon CBC database: Olympia 76th, 77th, 78th, 84th, 104th, and 110th counts; and Seattle 91st count.
  • The following counts had no (or obviously incorrect) data for party hours: Portland 104th count; Bellingham 111th, 112th, and 119th counts. Because they did have bird numbers, I approximated the party hours based on their counts in nearby years. I used 230 party hours for the Portland count and 200 party hours for the Bellingham counts.

Other climate-related bird changes in the Pacific Northwest

I’ve previously blogged about climate change and birds in the Pacific Northwest:

The invasion of the Pacific Northwest: California’s birds expand north with warmer winters looks at northward range expansions of Great Egret, Turkey Vulture, Red-shouldered Hawk, Anna’s Hummingbird, Black Phoebe, Townsend’s Warbler, and California Scrub-Jay, with some discussion of others as well. Note that Townsend’s Warbler, as a migrant that winters rarely in the PNW, fits with the group of birds described in this post.

The song of the Lesser Goldfinch: Another harbinger of a warming climate looks at increasing records in the PNW in summer.

Mapping the expansion of the California Scrub-Jay into the Pacific Northwest looks at the steady range expansion of this non-migratory species.

References

Hampton, S. 2019. Avian responses to rapid climate change: Examples from the Putah Creek Christmas Bird Count. Central Valley Birds 22(4): 77-89.

Hitch and Leberg. 2007. Breeding distributions of North American bird species moving north as a result of climate change. Conservation Biology 21(2): 534-9.

Illán et al. 2014. Precipitation and winter temperature predict long-term range-scale abundance changes in Western North American birds. Global Change Biology, 20 (11), 3351–3364.

Langham et al 2015. Conservation status of North American birds in the face of future climate change. PLoS ONE 10(9): e0135350.

La Sorte, F.A., and F.R. Thompson III. 2007. Poleward shifts in winter ranges of North American birds. Ecology 88(7):1803–1812.

Paprocki et al. 2014. Regional Distribution Shifts Help Explain Local Changes in Wintering Raptor Abundance: Implications for Interpreting Population Trends. PLoS ONE 9(1): e86814.

Paprocki et al. 2017. Combining migration and wintering counts to enhance understanding of population change in a generalist raptor species, the North American Red-tailed Hawk. The Condor, 119 (1): 98–107.

Prince, K. and B. Zuckerberg. 2016. Climate change in our backyards: the reshuffling of North America’s winter bird communities. Global Change Biology 21(2): 572-585.

Saunders et al. 2022. Unraveling a century of global change impacts on winter bird distributions in the eastern United States. Global Change Biology

Virkkala, R. and A. Lehikoinen 2014. Patterns of climate-induced density shifts of species: poleward shifts faster in northern boreal birds than in southern birds. Global Change Biology 20: 2995–3003.

Wu et al. 2018. Projected avifaunal responses to climate change across the U.S. National Park System. PLOS ONE 13(3): e0190557.

I try to maintain an updated list of references at the Birds and Climate Change Facebook group. At that page, click on Files to find the list.

A Nazca Booby, a tug, a barge, and a pit: A climate parable

At 9:30am on August 17, that is, yesterday, I got a text from another birder. A Nazca Booby had just been seen from Discovery Point near Seattle. What’s more, we knew exactly where the bird was now; it was perched on the bow of a barge being pulled by the tug Seaspan Raider.

The Nazca Booby, atop the barge, photographed by Matt Stolmeier, captain for Outer Island Excursions.

The Nazca Booby is a tropical seabird that breeds exclusively on the Galapagos Islands. When not nesting, it occurs at sea in the eastern Pacific, generally between central Mexico and northern Peru.

Breeding (orange) and non-breeding (blue) range of the Nazca Booby.

This was Washington’s third record. The first, quite possibly the same bird, was on August 14, 2020, in pretty much the same part of Puget Sound. The second was a few weeks ago also off Seattle. That one was an immature, not an adult, so we know it was a different individual. It then showed up off Victoria, providing Canada with its third record.

The Nazca Booby first arrived in the United States in California in 2013. I actually played a role in that first record, a dead beachcast bird found in the aftermath of an oil spill. Working for the state’s spill response, I brought it to the attention of the California Bird Records Committee and had experts examine the carcass for identification. That bird was not a one-off event; it was the beginning of an invasion. There were a few scattered records in the following years, followed by an explosion of 26 records in 2018 and 21 in 2019. After that, California removed the species from its “review list”. While some of these records may have been the same individuals, it is remarkable that a tropical bird previously unheard-of in the US was suddenly widespread. Oregon got its first two records in 2018 and 2019.

Sea surface temperature (SST) of 66.1F off the Washington/Oregon coast.

Checking sea surface temperatures, I see that the water off the Washington and Oregon coasts is reaching 66F in places, only 4F cooler than on the south side of the Galapagos. Zooming out, it is easy to see a route from there to here where the bird never had to encounter sea surface temps under 60F. The Strait of Juan de Fuca is in the low 50s, but it does approach 60F near Seattle.

I opened the MarineTraffic app and quickly located the Seaspan Raider. It was southwest of Edmunds, northbound at 7.3 knots. I calculated it would arrive off Port Townsend between 1 and 2pm. Birders scrambled, heading to various coastal promontories on both sides of Puget Sound. I headed to Point Wilson, where Puget Sound effectively ends and meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The tug, bound for Canada, would have to pass by me here.

Reports came in. The bird had flown off the barge. It was in the water off Edmunds. It took off. It was seen from both sides. No one knew where it was.

Tracking the tug using the MarineTraffic app.

This wasn’t the only booby in the Salish Sea at the moment. A Brown Booby had been photographed a few days earlier near the San Juans. That was yet another tropical seabird that had already invaded the US, with records from over forty states, including Alaska. Two decades ago, this would have been unimaginable. And this summer, 2022, was already noteworthy across the Midwest and East Coast for the mass invasion of waterbirds typically found only in Florida or the Gulf Coast. Limpkins, Wood Storks, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbills and many others were showing up hundreds of miles north of their previously known ranges.

Scrolling thru the American Birding Association Rare Bird Alert nationwide posts, limited to just mega-rarities, here is what pops up: Brown Booby in Oklahoma, Neotropic Cormorant in North Carolina, Brown Booby in Wisconsin, two Swallow-tailed Kites in Ohio, Limpkin in Wisconsin, Neotropic Cormorant in Michigan, White Ibis in New York, Wood Stork in Pennsylvania, Heermann’s Gull in Alaska, Limpkin in Illinois, Nazca Booby in California, White Ibis in Nebraska, etc. And that doesn’t even get us back to August 1. These are all birds, mostly aquatic birds, well north of their normal ranges.

Our current rate of climate warming hasn’t been seen since the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) 55 million years ago. Then, there were alligators within the Arctic Circle. Kind of like Nazca Boobies are now a thing in Puget Sound. Actually, our current rate of warming is much faster than then. During the PETM, the climate warmed 5C in five thousand years. The current rate of warming is eighteen times faster. Then, no one would have noticed. Now, there is 1C of warming – and, with it, dramatic changes in climate and ecology – within the lifespan of a single bird. Some seabirds are showing us that they can keep up, thanks to their ability to fly long distances. I’m not sure about the alligators. Or birds that depend, say, on oak trees. The birds can fly, but the oaks can’t.

Two hours passed. I was ready to give up and head home, my only consolation being “MAMU CF”, a Marbled Murrelet making a provisioning flight across the Sound, carrying a fish to its single chick somewhere on a moss-covered Doug fir branch a hundred feet above the forest floor, probably in the Olympic Mountains. I’d only seen that once before. Much of their range in California has been lost to fires in the past five years, so this Olympic chick is important.

The original photo of the Nazca Booby on the barge, by Alex Meilleur.

One birder, who was unable to search for the Nazca Booby, called some of the local orca boats, as he worked on some of them. He let them know about the bird, as some were near it. About twenty minutes later, texts came in. They had re-found it! It was back on the same barge, now approaching Marrowstone Point. I spun my scope south. There, beyond the ferry lane, I could make out the red and white structure of the Seaspan Raider, pulling its barge, all blurry and shimmering in the distant heat mirage, slowly chugging toward me.

Taking advantage of the outgoing tide, the Seaspan Raider was now hitting 9 knots. It is powered by two Niigata 6m G25HX diesel engines. I don’t know what kind of gas mileage it gets, but, because it presumably refueled in Washington, most of its fuel is likely conventional diesel, but a small component may be renewable diesel.

Renewable diesel is not the same as biodiesel. Biodiesel can be mixed with conventional diesel, but only in very small amounts, like 2%. Renewable diesel, on the other hand, is molecularly identical to conventional diesel. It’s a relatively new invention. Made from non-petroleum sources, such as plant and animal material, it is to conventional diesel what corn syrup is to sugar; it is a “drop-in ready” alternative fuel. It can be mixed with or substituted for conventional diesel seamlessly, with no change in gas pumps, pipelines, or engines. In fact, it burns slightly cleaner, so engines last longer. It emits fewer particulates and, most importantly, its greenhouse gas footprint is up to 80% less. Its use is already widespread in California, where two of the state’s largest refineries no longer take petroleum crude.

This is the kind of thing that should have been developed thirty years ago, just after James Hansen of NOAA briefed congress on climate change in 1986. Now it’s late. We’ve already had more than 1C of climate warming, with more coming and probably ten feet of sea level rise built into the system. Stopping carbon emissions is no longer a suitable goal. We’ve already pushed the cart down the ramp. It’s rolling. We need to reverse climate change, to change that ramp so the cart rolls back to where it was. That will require actually sucking CO2 out of the air – negative emissions – which will certainly take a hundred years under the most optimistic scenarios. So get ready for more boobies, maybe even Limpkins and alligators.

Aside about Washington: Washington further delayed action a few years ago when the Department of Ecology required an Environmental Impact Statement from Phillips 66 to convert their refinery at Cherry Point to make renewable diesel. That is to say, Phillips needed to jump through major permitting hurdles because they were changing – that is, reducing — their greenhouse gas emissions. Phillips didn’t want to wait the several years required for this, so they promptly moved their operation to California. Governor Inslee tried to intervene and save the project, but it was too late. Now BP is picking up the baton in Washington.

Renewable diesel is already in widespread use in trucks, especially in California. The ferries in San Francisco Bay are powered exclusively by it. Because diesel is similar to jet fuel, and made during the same refining process, refineries also produce what is called sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Aircraft are currently permitted to fly with up to a 50/50 blend of SAF and conventional jet fuel. Boeing promises jets that can fly with 100% SAF by 2030. We’ll be approaching 1.5C of warming by then. Nazca Booby will almost certainly be off the rare bird review list, at least in California. Brown Boobies will be breeding on the Farallones and prospecting further north.

I watched as orca boats came and went from the barge, photographing the Nazca Booby. I was told it was on the starboard side of the roof of the little structure on the bow. The tug and barge continued up Admiralty Inlet until it was straight out from me, as close as it would pass. Slightly more than halfway across the channel, it remained blurred in heat mirage. I could see fuzzy white dots on the described rooftop, but I couldn’t tell you if they were Nazca Boobies or gulls or volleyballs. In birder’s lingo, this was going to be a ‘dip’, even though I knew exactly where the bird was and was looking at it.

My view of the tug, barge, and bird.

Mathematically, this would be at least the sixth time a Nazca Booby had passed this point, my point, my sea watch. And this time I was here, ready and waiting, and still I couldn’t see it. Were it not for the texts and the orca boats, I’d never know it was there. I kept my scope glued to it, hoping it would lift off in a distinctive flight and head directly toward me, where it would join the Caspian Terns and plunge dive right in front of me as I clicked my camera in ecstasy. But it didn’t. The tug and barge chugged north.

The bird was last seen at Partridge Point on Whidbey Island, still riding the barge. It was off the barge by Rosario Inlet. I’m guessing it jumped ship and headed toward Victoria or Smith Island.

The barge’s destination was the Lafarge Texada Quarrying Ltd. limestone mine north of Vancouver. Limestone is critical to making cement. The cement-making process is responsible for 8% of the world’s carbon emissions. Part of that is from the energy used in production, which requires a kiln heated to 1,400 degrees Celsius. But most of the emissions comes from the limestone itself. Forty percent of the weight of limestone is CO2, and this is burned off in the process. There are efforts to improve the cement-making process, to make it less dependent on limestone, to reduce its carbon emissions. That’s all coming in the future.

The limestone mine at Beale Cove, the barge’s destination.

I’m wondering about the ancient Nazca civilization in what is now Peru. It was dependent on a remarkable network of underground aqueducts that delivered mountain water to their arid home. There’s a theory that they over-harvested a certain tree, which led to erosion of riversides during heavy rains, destroying their water delivery system. I wonder if they had meetings about the problem, if they had new policies in effect, at least at the end, when it was too late.

It’s supposed to be 95F in the Seattle suburbs today. I’m not worried about missing this Nazca Booby. There will be more.

The Nazca Booby on the bow. I’m sure the scope views were better. Photo by Laura Brou.