Bluebirds and lots of other species are on the move because of climate change, and Audubon volunteers and scientists are on the case to find out where and how fast.
Earlier this year, the National Audubon Society launched a new citizen science project across 10 states, partnering with 19 Audubon chapters and one center to track how North American bluebirds are responding to global warming. The pilot project, Climate Watch, asks volunteers to visit 10-kilometer squares in their locale to count Mountain, Western, and Eastern Bluebirds and submit their data through eBird. The surveys take place in January and June, allowing participants to sample both the birds’ wintering and breeding seasons.
The purpose of these forays is to help refine projections from Audubon's Birds and Climate Change Report. Both the Mountain and Western Bluebird are identified as climate threatened in the report, while the Eastern Bluebird is prediced to face some type of shift in its range. “Hard data, real numbers, on what sort of effect climate has on one particular creature would be valuable,” says Mark Delwiche, a Climate Watch participant and president of Snake River Audubon Society in Idaho. This month, he and more than 20 other volunteers completed Mountain Bluebird point counts within about a dozen designated grids in the chapter’s territory. Audubon’s models predict that the species will see a 77 percent loss of its current summer range by 2080.
Delwiche is used to sacrificing his early mornings to science; he’s a longtime Christmas Bird Count participant and has been president of the Snake River chapter since the 1990s. Though he didn’t spot any bluebirds during his first Climate Watch survey, he found the fieldwork exhilarating; one of his point-count sites is a large lava field at the edge of a mountain range, where he saw Lazuli Buntings and Greater Sage-Grouse. Other Snake River chapter volunteers logged Mountain Bluebirds at separate sites. The species is a real local favorite, Delwiche says. “When you see them in the spring when there’s still snow, they are just dazzling—this beautiful blue bird on a fence post against the white."
But snow can be less of an aesthetic bonus and more of a hurdle during the winter survey period. Volunteers at the Prairie Rapids Audubon Society in Cedar Falls, Iowa, went out for Eastern Bluebirds counts in January despite a wind chill of negative-35 degrees and gusts of snow. Chapter president Tom Schilke didn’t expect to see bluebirds in that weather—but zero data is data, too, he says, because it helps establish detectability and whether the birds might be shifting into new ranges.
Detectability is measured by how frequently observers are able to see and identify birds that are present in an area, says Kathy Dale, director of science technology for Audubon. It can vary by species and helps set a baseline to show whether sightings represent normal variations or a significant shift in range. She adds that bluebirds were chosen as the first species to launch Climate Watch because they're easy to identify (reducing variations in detectability) and have a wide geographic distribution.
While Eastern Bluebirds aren’t considered to be climate threatened, Schilke says that birders in Des Moines have recently started seeing them in winter (when they're supposed to be farther south in Missouri and beyond). This could mean that the species is already moving north in some areas. Additionally, it’s useful to compare climatic responses when evaluating a whole suite of related species, Dale says.
Meanwhile, chapters in Arizona, New Mexico, and Oregon have been tracking the Western Bluebird. This forest-dwelling species is projected to lose 63 percent of its current winter range and 38 percent of its current summer range by 2080 due to climate change.
Audubon’s science team worked for nearly two years to research and design the Climate Watch program, which asks groups of volunteers to conduct five-minute counts at a total of 12 points within each 10-kilometer square. The initial pilot chapters and center were selected based on their closeness to projected loss and gain areas for bluebirds. The candidates also had a record of installing nest boxes or doing other work with bluebirds in the past.
This new source of data doesn’t make other citizen science projects, such as the CBC and eBird, any less crucial to Audubon’s climate models, Dale says. But the Climate Watch protocol is unique and will complement these other records in an important way. “We can’t tell the future,” Dale says. “[But] we can give it a good prediction based on really good information.”
Climate Watch will continue to evolve as more feedback and data roll in. Audubon hopes to expand the project to additional locations and species in 2017.
The chapters and centers that have participated in Climate Watch so far are:
- Arizona: Tucson Audubon Society
- Colorado: Audubon Society of Greater Denver
- Georgia: Atlanta Audubon Society, Coastal Georgia Audubon Society
- Iowa: Big Bluestem Audubon Society, Dubuque Audubon Society, Loess Hills Audubon Society, Prairie Rapids Audubon Society
- Idaho: Snake River Audubon Society
- Maryland: Chesapeake Audubon Society, Pickering Creek Audubon Center
- New Mexico: Central New Mexico Audubon Society, Sangre de Cristo Audubon Society
- New York: Buffalo Audubon Society, Chemung Audubon Society, Jamestown Audubon Society, Onondaga Audubon Society
- Oregon: Audubon Society of Corvallis, East Cascades Audubon Society
- Wisconsin: Gaylord Nelson Audubon Society