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‘Birds are citizens of the world’: Climate change affects bird migration

Florida is part of an essential route connecting migrating birds traveling from the Atlantic Coast to the Caribbean and South America. (Mariana Pena Rueda/ WUFT News)
Florida is part of an essential route connecting migrating birds traveling from the Atlantic Coast to the Caribbean and South America. (Mariana Pena Rueda/ WUFT News)

Every bird watcher’s dream is to find a species they wouldn't normally see wandering through North Central Florida.

Some encounters can be extraordinary enough to bring attention, said Felicia Lee, a current board member of the Alachua Audubon Society.  That’s the case with the Common Merganser wandering across Alachua County after it was last seen on Dec. 21, 1966, according to the non-profit organization’s birds checklist.

But other sightings may be like canaries in a coal mine – providing early warning signals of climate change.

“I don’t remember these birds being there as I was a kid,” said 61-year-old Gordon Ward, as he pointed to several Black-bellied Whistling Ducks flying in the sky.

According to the non-profit organization, Audubon Florida, more than 500 birds reside and travel across the state of Florida. From June to January, that number varies as fallbird migration periods begin. But drastic changes in weather are forcing birds to either adapt or change their migration patterns if they want to reach their final destinations.

Florida is part of theAtlantic Flyway, an essential migratory route, said Chris Farrell, an Audubon Florida Northeast Florida policy associate.

The state is the connection point for birds coming down the Atlantic coast to the Caribbean and South America. 

Audubon Florida director of conservation Audrey DeRose-Wilson said during these four months, birds across the globe embark on journeys to different destinations to escape the change of seasons.

Some birds, she said, travel just long enough until they reach warmer places with more food resources. Others, such as the Red Knot, a medium-size bird with a short beak and an orange belly, travel thousands of miles until reaching their destination. 

She said the Red Knot, which breeds in the Arctic, flies more than 8,000 miles to an area with more food and resources: the southern tip of South America.

“It’s crossing from almost pole to pole,” she said.

For them, Florida is just their pit stop.

But climate change has made their escape from the change of seasons harder, which Farrell said forces birds to change the distance traveled and the timing of migration.

According to DeRose-Wilson, birds take weather cues such as day length, temperature and wind direction before they start migrating.

“With climate change, there's this potential for a timing mismatch to occur,” she said.

Sudden changes can trigger early or even delayed migration affecting birds that are just passing by the area to recharge. She said warmer weather can cause birds to arrive after insects emerge and leave them without a source of energy to continue their journey.

“Whether or not birds can adjust, can be pretty significant,” she said. “The short-distance migrants have shown more ability to adjust than the long-distance migrants.”

As climate change affects every ecosystem differently, this phenomenon can leave many questions unanswered – for now.

“The impacts that we have on weather patterns and on the climate can impact these birds in a lot of ways that are very complex and that we certainly don't fully understand yet,” she said.

Instead, Adam Kent said understanding comes from years of studying migration trends.

Kent, 55, was twice the president of the not-for-profit organization Florida Ornithological Society. He now works at a consulting company, but his love for birds persists.

On Nov. 5, he was among around 40 people who walked to Depot Park for the event hosted by Alachua County’s Audubon Chapter called Birds and Brews at First Magnitude Brewing Company in Gainesville. They were all expecting to see birds residing in Gainesville, but above all, those birds paying the city their yearly visit.

After the event, Ward talked about taking a summer field course while he was in college. The professor taught them how to identify birds only through their sounds, he said.

“Over that summer, I had this extraordinary superpower,” Ward said as he reminisced walking down trails with his eyes closed. “A superpower accessible to everybody.”

His father purchased memberships in many organizations under his name when he was a kid, Ward said. Now, he is just trying to take advantage of them.

Still, he said he doesn't consider himself an avid birder.

“If you enjoy [bird watching], you are already a good birder,” Kent said, quoting Kenn Kaufman, author and naturalist.

Along with Kent’s wife, Gina, the three discussed how there should be more attention brought to the environment and what is happening in front of people.

As Kent scrolled through his phone on Google’s news tab looking for stories on science, he talked about how all Google found were stories about space and almost none about what is happening on earth.

“There is no connection to nature,” Kent said.  

 “Birds are citizens of the world,” Ward said. “There is global change, but there is local change.”

Policies protecting nature exist, especially for migrant birds. TheMigratory Bird Treaty Act “prohibits the take (including killing, capturing, selling, trading, and transport) of protected migratory bird species without prior authorization by the Department of Interior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” The treaty allows native migratory birds to come back and forth when time is due.

But as cities expand and more natural habitats are lost, a bird might come back to a home that is not there anymore, Ward said.

“It's critical that we have habitats for these birds to stop and refuel along the way,” Farrell said.

In the past conservation lands were purchased, named and protected because wildlife already lived there, and weather conditions dictated where specific species and plants lived, he said.

“We need to make sure that we have a robust network of lands that will allow not only wildlife species to move to appropriate areas, but habitats to migrate,” he said. “But that can only happen if we have preserved those lands and allowed the habitats to move.”

Infrastructure and development foils those plans, Farrell said.

“Things are changing, the climate is changing, sea levels changing, rainfall is changing,” he said. “We need to be planning for a future that we're not 100% sure of what it's going to look like.”

Mariana is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing