Birds flying high in cities
Audubon issues annual report
Migrating birds are bulking up in the city on their way to Mexico and South America.
At least they are in New York City, according to research conducted by Chad Seewagen, executive director of Great Hollow Nature Preserve and Ecological Research Center in New Fairfield. That means that other urban habitats may also be good “refueling” places for birds that may not land once they’ve left East Rock Park in New Haven or Seaside Park in Bridgeport for their wintering homes south of the border.
“Right in the middle of America’s largest city, birds were refueling at rates similar to and in some cases higher than” parks in Westchester County, he said.
Seewagen was one of the speakers last week at the Connecticut Audubon Society’s annual State of the Birds report, held at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. The mood of the gathering of several-dozen bird and environmental enthusiasts was optimistic about cities’ role in contributing to the welfare of the many migrating birds, such as Swainson’s thrush, common yellowthroat, magnolia warbler and the ubiquitous ovenbird, which make an urban stopover on their way south.
“Our focus this year is on birds and the heavily developed landscape,” said Kathleen Van Der Aue of Fairfield, chairwoman of Connecticut Audubon. “Our proximity to the coast puts Connecticut right in the heart of the Atlantic Flyway,” she said, giving the state the “highest percentage in the country of the urban wildlife interface.”
Patrick Comins, Connecticut Audubon’s executive director, also presented the chapter’s major recommendations for the year, led by asking Congress to pass the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. The act would designate “$1.3 billion of existing dollars annually” to state conservation efforts. The money would come from royalties paid to the federal government for mining and drilling on public lands.
Connecticut stands to receive $12.6 million to support its Wildlife Action Plan. That would be “more than a tenfold increase” of what the state is spending now, Comins said. “It would really be a game changer if we could get Recovering America’s Wildlife Act passed.”
“It’s abundantly apparent that birds need people and people need birds,” Comins said, and in the fourth most densely populated state in the country, “we still have abundant and really highquality habitat,” including grasslands, forests, marshlands, tidal marshes, islands and Long Island Sound. “Laced through all of this are ribbons of cities and suburbs,” he said.
Comins said birds such as the semipalmated sandpiper are “going to fatten up and take off” to winter in Central America. According to an article by Seewagen in the Connecticut State of the Birds report, as many as 80 percent of migrating birds die before they can get to their destinations.
“Connecticut is a large jumping-off point for large numbers of migrating birds,” Comins said, adding that habitat that aids migration is as important as preserving arboreal forests or coral reefs.
That’s why Seewagen’s research came as good news. He and his brother measured the “refueling rate” of birds in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, Inwood Hill Park on the northern tip of Manhattan and the park that includes the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden, as well as in three parks in Westchester County.
“I wondered if urban habitats, which are typically very degraded … could allow birds to do this and provide them with the resources they need,” Seewagen said. He found that birds in the city grew just as fat in their oneto three-day stays as did those in the northern suburbs.
Seewagen said migratory birds have evolved to become “more generalists” during migration. “They can exploit an array of habitats” where they find insects later in the season because cities tend to be warmer than suburban areas.
“Those very same birds would never nest in an area like that,” but because of the heat island effect of cities, as well as global warming, “the plants are green and the insects [are active] much later in the fall in the cities,” Seewagen said.
He said there’s a misconception that birds only eat berries in the fall and that they lose body fat during their migration, but they need to feed on invertebrates as well before they take off in order to stock up on protein because “they’re losing a lot of lean body mass in those flights. … Most of the weight they gain in the beginning is lean tissue,” he said.
Seewagen cautioned that “what I found in these three parks in this one city can’t be generalized to any city in the world,” but it’s a hopeful sign. “By serving as valuable stopover habitats,” the New York parks are “facilitating population on a global scale,” he said.
Milan Bull, senior director of science and conservation for Connecticut Audubon, said that traditional banding of migrating birds to identify their takeoff and landing places is giving way to the Motus Wildlife Tracking System, which uses “highly miniaturized radio transmitters” so small they can even be attached to butterflies.
“The seasonal movement of birds takes place well outside our view,” Bull said, but Motus allows scientists to track birds, bats and insects throughout their flight, because “the tags broadcast on the same frequency to which all the towers are tuned. Increasingly now we are able to track these animals across the entire hemisphere. This is pretty amazing stuff.”
Motus, named for the Latin word for motion, has recorded “hundreds of millions of detections on thousands of birds, bats and insects,” Bull said, “identifying those critical places where birds need to rest [and] refuel.”
Comins said the system “shows that birds are in fact much closer to us than we ever thought.” Widening the network of Motus receivers is another of Connecticut Audubon’s recommendations, as is expanding the National Wildlife Refuge Partnership program to Hartford.
Shaun Roche, who works in the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, described that partnership in New Haven, working with Common Ground High School, the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the Yale Peabody Museum, Urban Resources Initiative, Menunkatuck Audubon Society, Southern Connecticut State University and the mayor’s office, public schools and the Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees to create 15 urban oases in New Haven and one in Hamden.
Roche said the schoolyard habitat program “turns it not only into better habitat … but it also turns it into an outdoor classroom for the kids to use.” He called an urban oasis near Cherry Ann Street in Newhallville “a really good example of a neighborhood project” in a “derelict part of Beaver Ponds Park.”
Susan Whalen, deputy commissioner for environmental conservation with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and a Connecticut Audubon board member, said “urban spaces are really fitting places for wildlife to live,” noting that peregrine falcons and oystercatchers nest in Bridgeport and that falcons and red-tailed hawks are seen in Bushnell Park in Hartford. (Falcons and bald eagles also have called New Haven home.)
“Birds aren’t the only creatures occupying urban spaces,” Whalen said, with coyotes, deer and bears seen in Bushnell Park. She said a Bioblitz, “kind of a species scavenger hunt,” found 2,760 species of plants, animals and even micro-organisms within 5 miles of Hartford and East Hartford.
She also praised the involvement of schoolchildren and others in conservation efforts. The state’s Osprey Nation program, with its “citizen science volunteers,” has had “tremendous upward success,” with 314 stewards in 2018 counting 450 active nests and 622 fledglings.
A peregrine falcon in flight.