Improving Stopover Habitat for Birds

A joint effort between Audubon and The Nature Conservancy aims to improve rest stops for migrating songbirds.

Much about bird migration remains a mystery. Yet we do know that for some species, such as the black-throated blue warbler, the journey is extremely perilous: 85 percent of adult mortality happens during their biannual flights, says Mike Burger, Audubon New York’s conservation and science director. Avian pit stops are crucial during these long journeys, allowing birds to rest and refuel. New data collected by Audubon New York and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) during three spring and two fall seasons provides a snapshot of stopover hotspots, from Buffalo to Syracuse and into the Finger Lakes region.

For three years 55 volunteers (including those from the Onondaga, Genesee Valley, and Buffalo Audubon chapters) monitored more than 60 sites in the Lake Ontario watershed. They counted the species and individual birds they saw and heard, drawing out hidden birds by playing a recording of chickadees mobbing a screech owl (the sound suggests a predator is present, prompting some birds to emerge). “This is not a sit-on-your-back-deck-and-sip-coffee counting effort,” says Kristin France, a TNC senior conservation scientist and her organization’s project lead. “This asks a lot of our volunteers.” All told, the counters tallied more than 52,000 birds and close to 160 species.

The results confirmed what the environmental groups suspected and what published literature says about other, similar landscapes: “The lakeshore is important” to migrating birds, France says, but it’s not the only key stopover habitat. Other attractive rest stops may exist up to 10 miles from the water’s edge or occur in isolated locations such as urban parks and wooded patches farther inland. 

Audubon and TNC plan to work with public and private landowners to ensure proper use and protection of the most sensitive stopover habitats, Burger says. “We really are not in a position where conservation of these [areas] can wait.”

This story originally ran in the September-October 2012 issue as "Pit Stop."