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Eyes to the Sky!

I think we can all agree that there was very little “real” winter to be enjoyed this year. The lack of snow and ice not only affects what we humans can do outdoors but also what our wildlife can do. This is the time of year when birds that winter in our area are getting ready to start moving back to their northern breeding ranges. However, the numbers of “winter birds” that our area saw this year was much lower than in more normal winters. Some never even showed up, likely because weather conditions were better suited to our north, so there was no need to travel this far south. Good numbers of tundra swans and several duck species have been present on Chautauqua Lake the past few days to week. These waterfowl tend to get pushed south as lakes freeze, hopscotching from waterbody to waterbody to stay ahead of the ice. Now they are heading back north, and while Chautauqua Lake is ice-free, they’re right at home here. However, that won’t last if lakes to our north are opening up early too.


As our winter birds prepare to leave, the first of our “summer birds” are starting to trickle in. Birds that spend their summers here tend to nest and have young here. Many of them leave during the winter, often because they feed primarily on insects of which there are hardly any during periods of freezing weather. Robins are showing up all over the county lately, and the first Red-winged Blackbirds came in last week. A few Killdeer can be seen and heard in open areas and farm fields already, and very soon the Woodcock will start their intricate nighttime display flights. Spring is coming, and it may be upon us early this year.


Interestingly, even though warmer temperatures and fewer rainy days allow trees and shrubs to leaf out and bloom earlier, the arrival time of most migratory birds does not seem to change much. An increasingly well-documented pattern is slowly emerging that shows how warmer temperatures are negatively impacting migratory birds. Historically, these birds would arrive back on their summer breeding grounds at a time when there is a peak in their insect prey availability. For example, North American warblers tend to arrive back from the tropics when our trees start to leaf out and recently hatched caterpillars are munching on fresh foliage in large numbers. With the warming temperatures and early leaf-out, butterfly eggs hatch early, caterpillars develop earlier, and they can be hidden in a pupa stage by the time the birds that rely on important caterpillar meals arrive here. Likewise, flowering times and the presence of pollinators are increasingly off these days. These timing issues not only harm birds and pollinators but also our economy, as fruit growers can attest to.


So, please enjoy feeling the sun warming your face on a late winter day, but please consider helping the birds and other animals that are impacted by these unseasonably warm weather patterns. Bluebird and Wood Duck nesting boxes help when installed in the right locations, and some of our volunteers are placing wood duck boxes at several of our preserves right now. We are also working to put up several new Osprey nesting platforms before these majestic birds return in late March. And, most importantly, we continue to protect and restore important habitats throughout the county to ensure that canopy cover helps cool the region and that healthy wetlands and forests persist to provide a home for already stressed birds. Please consider supporting these efforts!

And of course, keep your eyes to the sky to see the change in seasons and the change in birdlife that comes with it. The Cassadaga Lakes Nature Park may be a good place to visit in the next few months. Our surveys show that it is currently among the most bird-diverse locations known in our county, with over 175 different species of birds observed to date! Because of that, the park was recently added as a destination to the NYS Birding Trail list.

Article by Twan Leenders, Director of Conservation for Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy

Top photo of Bill Thomas standing next to one of two wood duck boxes he volunteered to build and install at CWC preserves ahead of the spring wood duck migration and breeding season. (photo courtesy Bill Thomas)

Bottom photo of wood ducks by Twan Leenders


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