Birdwatching on Long Island threatened by climate change and window collisions

By Vaidik Trivedi

Parents walk with their children, some as young as five, through the woods, binoculars stuck to their eyes, hoping to spot chirping birds over the construction sound nearby, on April 24 at Garvies Point Museum in Glen Cove.

The 50-year-old museum and preserve spreads across five miles of shoreline, covering 61 acres of land. The thick vegetation provides a habitat for more than 60 species of trees and 50 species of birds throughout the year.

Birdwatching, a $40 billion industry, is especially prominent on Long Island.

“Long Island, fortunately, has many good patches of bird habitat, of various kinds, in its many parks and nature reserves,” Douglas J. Futuyma, member of the New York State Ornithologist Association, said. “The number of birders (bird watchers) on LI has been increasing greatly over the past few decades.”

 

Birds, like the white-throated sparrow and red-throated hummingbird, face a new kind of human-created threat. On average, 500 million birds in the U.S. die every year from colliding into windows.

“Bird collision into windows is a transparency issue,” John Turner, T the Four Harbors Audubon Conservation Chairperson, said. “The issue is not only native to New York, but has global significance.”

Long Island is home to over 400 different species of birds and serves as a crucial habitat for threatened at-risk bird species, like the piping plover.

The island also serves as a rich feeding ground for migratory birds during their long migrating season.

“At least 82 species migrate north in the spring from warmer regions, nest here, and depart southward in autumn,” Futuyma, said. “ And at least 77 species pass through in both Spring as they head north, and in fall as they head south.”

Flush with greenery and feeding grounds, an active birder can expect to see more than 275 species on LI in the course of a year.

“Shore line and wood trails on Long Island are a really great place to come learn about nature,” John Carbone, a birdwatching Guide at Garvies Point Museum Preserve, said. “It provides a sanctuary for animals and birds to come during migrating season for rich food sources.”

Carbone, who has worked at the museum for five years, conducts birdwatching walks throughout the year, three times a day, for groups as large as 20 people.

“It is a natural reserve and our goal is educating people about different birds native to Long Island,” Veronica Natale,  director of the Garvies point Museum and Preserve, said. “Our year-long birdwatching walks are aimed at children, but anyone interested to learn about birds is welcome.”

Families from across Long Island came out to the bird watch at Garvies Point to see birds in their natural habitat and build bird watching skills with tips from Carbone.

“I want to see how birds adapt to the environment such as like this construction,” Matthew Acquavella, aged 10, said as he pointed to the drilling and hammering sounds coming from the construction site behind the canopy of the preserve.”

Each species of bird is continuously adapting to their environment. But global warming and human development is altering the availability of suitable nesting and breeding grounds along with sources of food, according to the Audubon Report.

“Climate change certainly exerts effects on the timing and in some cases the path of migration,” Futuyma said. “Since the 1950’s and 1960’s, some species, which were very uncommon in the New York City/Long Island area, have become abundant: Northern Mockingbird, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse and more.”

Birds native to Long Island, including the eastern meadowlark, grasshopper sparrow and roseate tern, have entered the threatened and endangered (T&E) species list this past year.

“It is sad that these beautiful animals are endangered,” Jeannette Acquavella, a Freepoint resident, said. “We [parents] want them [children] to see how climate change is affecting these animals before they disappear.”

Nearly 314 species of birds will lose more than 50 percent of their current range of migrating lands by 2080, according to the Audubon Report. Birds like the brown pelican, bald eagle and common loon, face an increased risk of extinction due to rising temperatures and shrinking habitats, the report stated.

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People don’t necessarily understand what the birds provide,” Christine Sheppard Ph.D., D director of Glass Collisions Program at the American Bird Conservancy, said. “They eat insects that are a threat to vegetation and they help in transporting seeds which are really important for the ecosystem.”

Birds help forests recover from deforestation and forest fires, Sheppard said. She explained that birds break fruits to eat food and spread seeds across the forest bed, which helps the forest to regenerate.

But the growing and evolving human species are becoming a threat to the natural habitat of birds, Grant Sizemore, D director of Invasive Species Program at the American Bird Conservancy, said.

 

“The result of human behaviour is very harmful and threatful for birds on Long Island,” Sizemore, said. “Our developing infrastructure is a huge threat to birds, and can have a huge impact on their population.”

Nearly 365 million to one billion birds die every year from colliding into windows, according to a study published in 2014. In other words, more than one million birds die every day in the U.S. by flying into windows.

“Birds see the reflection of vegetation in the windows and fly right into it, not realising that the vegetation is a mere reflection,” Turner said. “Birds can fly through a dense canopy of forest without hitting a branch, but are deceived by windows, which end up with their deaths.”

Warmer climates are forcing birds to change their migration pattern and fly further into unknown territory to find food. Birds on average are shifting 1.27 km per year from their natural migrating routes, reacting to warmer climates.

“Many species of birds that were previously restricted to southern U.S. have been extending their breeding range northward because of the weather getting warmer.” Futuyma said. “We are documenting nesting by a few individuals of several species like blue grosbeak and yellow-throated warbler, that we suspect are pioneers, to be followed by abundant populations in the next couple of decades.”

During every fall and spring migration, millions of birds migrate for thousands of miles only to end up flying into a window and dying.

“Hundreds and thousands of birds migrate to Long Island from South America every Spring,” Turner said. “Many of them die because they are unfamiliar with the human environment here and collide into windows.”

Nearly 98 percent of collisions happen with buildings 11 stories or shorter, Turner explained.

“Birds come down to trees and shrubs to feed and get deceived by windows and crash into them,” Turner said.

Activists and Audubon societies have been trying to raise awareness about birds colliding into windows for the past five years and how it can be avoided. Bird conservancy activists like Sheppard and Turner suggest that creating a ‘visual interference’ on window panes will help reduce bird collision exponentially.

“Birds are smart; they know how big their bodies are,” Sheppard said. “You just need to convince the birds that they cannot fly through the window.”

Creating patterns and imprints on the glass can convince the bird that they cannot fly through the glass and avoid collision, despite the reflection of vegetation.

“Making dotted patterns on the glass, sticking parachute lines on glass windows, sticking stickers are cheap and easy ways to reduce bird collision,” Sheppard said.

Birds can see ultraviolet lights, unlike humans. Many window manufacturers are implementing a UV coating on their windows to reduce bird collision, Turner said.

“We placed some UV stickers in Stony Brook University campus and Brookhaven Town Hall in Farmingville and saw drastic reduction in bird collisions,” Turner said.

Native birds are at a lesser risk of colliding into windows than migrating birds.

“Birds native to Long Island generally know the infrastructural lay out, but migrating birds are new to everything here,” Turner said.

New York State Assemblyman, Steve Englebright, proposed a bill in April 2019, to treat 90 percent of glass on new and altered buildings to be treated to reduce the bird strikes. The bill titled as the Birds and Bees Protection Act is aimed to reduce bird collision and mortality.

“The Department of State will be proposed to develop and distribute informational materials to municipal governments on the importance of replacing steady lights on any tower with flashing lights for the purpose of preventing migratory bird mortality,” Stephen B. Liss, C counsel to New York Assemblyman Steve Englebright from Assembly District 4, said. “Potential funding sources for retrofitting and replacement of windows will be provided for building features which pose the most significant danger for bird collisions.”

Every year, nearly 135,000 birds die from colliding into windows on Long Island alone, Turner said. If nothing is done soon, the population of migrating birds will slowly diminish because their offspring are still learning to fly and keep colliding into windows.

“This is man encroaching on nature,” Adiena Obstfeld, a birdwatching attendee at Garvies Point, said. “Changing weather and reducing options are forcing birds out of their natural habitat.”

Birds, descendants of dinosaurs, have been around for nearly 127 million years. Climate change and human development of infrastructure is making it more and more difficult for these majestics and indispensable species of our ecosystem to survive.

“Birds are the barometer of health of the Earth,” Sheppard said. “Their reduction in the ecosystem should cause concern to us.”

New York is has the highest national bird mortality rates with almost one twentieth of national bird mortalities happen in state, Turner said.

“Birds already experience high mortality during migration, and collision just adds to that,” Futuyma said. “But birders on LI are becoming more aware of the threats to birds and becoming more engaged with conservation-related issues.”

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