Binocular brigades across the country are gearing up for Audubon's annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC), with high hopes of being invaded from the north again, as happened last winter when snowy owls were spotted in strange places.
The magnificent 2-foot-tall birds were seen from coast to coast in the lower 48. Five owls near Kansas City, Mo., created a traffic jam when thousands of people came to see the brilliant white birds featured in Harry Potter movies.
The owls descended from the Arctic as irruptive migrants, driven by their need for food.
Now grosbeaks, finches and nuthatches are irrupting as lack of food in Canadian forests sends these seed-eaters to New England and across the Great Lakes to Minnesota and, in some cases, all the way to the Gulf Coast.
"The finches are upon us in good numbers, and there is an all-out invasion under way, the likes of which we haven't seen in years," said Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut. "Usually they stay deep within the boreal and sub-boreal wilds of Canada. But in search of food, they can move far south."
How far south will they go between Dec. 14 (this Friday) and Jan. 5, when tens of thousands of volunteers set out to tally birds from the Arctic to the Andes?
Audubon experts already are seeing species well outside their normal range and in unusual numbers. For instance:
Red-breasted nuthatches have been reported in Mississippi by the Pascagoula Audubon Center;
Evening grosbeaks are drifting farther south and could move as far south as the Carolinas and Georgia.
According to eBird (the online bird record system run by Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), there are large movements of pine siskins, red crossbills and red-breasted nuthatches on both coasts and through the middle of the country.
These irruptions have been captured in data amassed by Audubon over the decades. For example, it was Audubon CBC data that allowed ornithologists to link seed crop failures in the north with surprise sightings throughout the U.S.
"Birds are among the most adaptable species on earth, simply because they can fly, and these irruptions are a fascinating part of the larger migration story," said Dr. Gary Langham, Audubon chief scientist. "These periodic invasions from our feathered friends set off our imaginations - linking our backyards to the vast northern forests - reminding us of the struggle to find food in winter."
The Audubon Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running citizen science wildlife survey in the world. The count will undergo several significant changes beginning this year as Audubon builds on the program's success to entice birdwatchers to lend their eyes and ears year round.
Fees to participate in the count will be dropped to encourage greater participation, and the annual published report, American Birds, will go digital in 2013, saving more trees for the birds.
Christmas Bird Count information will be available online in Spanish for the first time. And in 2013, Audubon will begin to extend conservation-focused observation efforts throughout the seasons.
"We're dropping fees, adding languages, going digital, and taking citizen science year-round," said Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold. "The Audubon Christmas Bird Count harnesses volunteer power to gather knowledge that shapes conservation policy at enormous scales in this country. I couldn't be prouder of the 60,000-plus volunteers who contribute each year: This is the largest, longest-running animal census on the planet, and we're all proud to be a part of the CBC. And with the elimination of fees, we're looking forward to even more people having a role in this adventure."
From Dec. 14 to Jan. 5, tens of thousands of volunteers will add a new layer to data that has shaped conservation and Congressional decisions.
"CBC data are becoming increasingly important, not only in documenting current climate change, but in predicting the future effects of climate change on North American bird populations," Yarnold wrote in Audubon magazine. "In 2013, using data from the CBC and other sources, Audubon will publish an unprecedented look at potential future bird ranges based on scientific models that illustrate anticipated effects of climate change on hundreds of species in the United States and Canada. If we know what to expect, we can start taking action now to do something about it."
Willis is the senior communications manager for the National Audubon Society, based in New York. Audubon connects people with birds, nature and the environment that supports us all. Its national network of community-based nature centers, chapters, scientific, education and advocacy programs engage millions of people from all walks of life in conservation action to protect and restore the natural world. Visit Audubon online at www.audubon.org.