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You might spot different birds in Vermont than in decades past. Here's why

A photo of the back of two people walking a field with trees along the edge and a mountain in the background. The sun is shining faintly
Eamon Dunn
Community News Service
Alison Wagner leads a small group on a birding walk around the Green Mountain Audubon Center in Huntington, Vermont.

On a recent spring Saturday in Huntington, Alison Wagner is showing a small group of birders a good spot to see some small songbirds.

"This area lost a lot of trees about 10 years ago," she says. "There was a big blow down, and so this particular spot was really good for birds that like disturbed areas, like mourning warbler."

Wagner, who works with Green Mountain Audubon, has been bird watching for 35 years.

Over the decades, she says, the types of birds she has seen in Vermont’s forests have changed. Take sparrows for instance.

"Just yesterday I was out with a friend of mine who’s been birding for 50 years, and we were talking about how this should be sparrow season, and we should be seeing sparrows in large quantities, and we’re not," Wagner says.

Spring in Vermont is a prime time to see many bird species, but as the climate changes, so are bird migration patterns.

A photo of a bird on a tree trunk, with a red head, tan belly and black and white wings.
Jason Paluck
Red-bellied woodpeckers can now be found in Vermont.

Kevin Tolan, a staff biologist with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, says some birds that don't migrate very far — facultative species — are now staying in Vermont through the winter because of milder temperatures.

He says biologists are also seeing changes with species that migrate long distances — birds that travel annually from Central or South America up north. They use the sun to know when to start migrating, and while that's not changing, when they arrive in Vermont, conditions on the ground are sometimes different than expected.

"That's called phenological mismatch — when they have to migrate these long distances, they don't know what's happening on the breeding ground. They can't control that," he says. "So, they're arriving at a different time compared to when they normally would be in the seasonal rhythm of things."

Things like when insects hatch, says Margaret Fowle, a senior biologist with Audubon Vermont. She says with warmer springs, insects hatch earlier.

"Then maybe those insects have already hatched and moved," Fowle says. "They [birds] don't have that fuel to get to kind of refuel and to feed themselves after this really long journey that takes so much out of them."

More from Vermont Public: Why all those crows roost in Burlington in wintertime

Another thing that scientists are seeing with climate change is that some birds who never would have given Vermont the time of day historically — like black vultures — are found here because the conditions are now right.

"We never used to have black vultures in Vermont at all," Fowle says. "It was really rare to see one here, and now we're starting to see more and more move in."

Other species from the mid-Atlantic are also being found here, such as red-bellied and red-headed woodpeckers.

"So while everyone's out there seeing birds and getting excited about the rare bird that shows up here from somewhere south of here, or even further away, I think the general feeling is like these birds are telling us something, and it may not be a good story if we don't act on it."
Margaret Fowle, senior conservation biologist with Audubon Vermont

But for some birds, a changing climate means a narrowing of habitable land. Take the Bicknell’s thrush. Fowle says they only nest in the upper elevations like on Mt. Mansfield.

"And as the vegetation changes over time, those areas where the birds are going to be nesting is becoming more and more constricted," she says. "And so they're losing habitat as well as they're probably gonna have to shift north in order to find what they need."

Overall, Fowle and other experts say, the impacts of climate change are a mixed bag for birds. While some birds will do just fine, others like the Bicknell's thrush might leave Vermont.

"So while everyone's out there seeing birds and getting excited about the rare bird that shows up here from somewhere south of here, or even further away, I think the general feeling is like these birds are telling us something, and it may not be a good story if we don't act on it," she says.

Back on the trail in Huntington, birder Alison Wagner and the group have spotted a lot of birds: ruffed grouse, tufted titmouse and hermit thrush, to name a few.

Seeing these creatures still excites her after all these years, but she is also concerned about the changes she's observed.

"Personally, I find it exciting as well, but I also find it kind of sad, if you think about the welfare of the birds," Wagner says.

This story was produced in collaboration between Vermont Public and the Community News Service. The Community News Service is a student-powered partnership between the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program and community newspapers across Vermont.

Eamon Dunn is a junior at the University of Vermont studying English.
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