Mi­grat­ing birds stray­ing from paths

Scarci­ties of food, habi­tat are sus­pected

The Washington Times Daily - - Nation - BY RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI

MAD IS­LAND, TEXAS | Strange things are aloft in the bird world.

En­dan­gered whoop­ing cranes flew 2,500 miles from Canada to Texas, where they usu­ally spend the whole win­ter. In­stead, they pecked around for a short time and flew back. In Ne­braska, other cranes never left.

Some ducks just kept fly­ing south all the way to Belize in Cen­tral Amer­ica. And a snowy owl was spot­ted near Dal­las, only the sixth time that’s ever hap­pened.

Through­out the win­ter, sci­en­tists have no­ticed these and other ex­am­ples of bizarre bird mi­gra­tions a re­sult, they be­lieve, of flocks be­com­ing des­per­ate for food and habi­tat be­com­ing in­creas­ingly scarce be­cause of the stub­born drought in Texas. The un­usu­ally mild win­ter in the North­east and Mid­west has even per­suaded some birds they could stay put, fly shorter dis­tances or turn back north ear­lier than nor­mal.

“We have birds scat­tered all over the place look­ing for habi­tat right now,” said Richard Kostecke, a bird ex­pert and as­so­ci­ate di­rec­tor of con­ser­va­tion, re­search and plan­ning at the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy in Texas.

The con­cerns go be­yond a few lost flocks. Mi­gra­tory birds of­ten use the win­ter months to rest, eat and gain en­ergy for the long jour­ney back to their nest­ing grounds, so bi­ol­o­gists can only guess at the ef­fects of this sea­son’s pe­cu­liar move­ments.

What will hap­pen if the birds’ di­ets are al­tered or if they ex­pend too much en­ergy? What if they fail to migrate at all? Will they still be able to breed af­ter a stress­ful win­ter?

“You may see a cas­cade of im­pacts,” Mr. Kostecke said. “We don’t know ex­actly where things will end up.”

In a typ­i­cal win­ter, the Texas Gulf Coast is packed with tens of thou­sands of birds song­birds, wa­ter­fowl, cat­birds, gnat­catch­ers, war­blers and other mi­grants. But this year, an an­nual count, done just be­fore Christ­mas, found the pop­u­la­tion had dropped steeply.

The num­ber of water-dwelling birds was down sig­nif­i­cantly. Geese, for ex­am­ple, were 61 per­cent be­low their 19-year av­er­age. Dab­bling ducks dropped 43 per­cent, div­ing ducks 60 per­cent and spoon­bills 74 per­cent.

Part of the prob­lem is lack of food. The drought the worst one-year dry spell in Texas his­tory parched thou­sands of acres of wet­lands along the coast, a habi­tat that is nor­mally rich with fish, seafood, berries and in­sects. Lucky for the birds, they can fly. “God gave birds wings for a rea­son: to pick up and find what they need,” said Dave Mor­ri­son, the small game di­rec­tor at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Depart­ment.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Geese fly over Mad Is­land, Texas, in mid-fe­bru­ary. In a typ­i­cal win­ter, the Texas Gulf Coast is packed with tens of thou­sands of mi­grat­ing birds. But this year, an an­nual count just be­fore Christ­mas found the pop­u­la­tion had dropped steeply.

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