Photo by Laura Erickson, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
American woodcock
 
photo by Nina Schoch
A social gathering of loons can sometimes contain more than 50 individual birds.
 
Photo by Larry Master, www.masterimages.org
A bohemian waxwing is seen yelling at a smaller cedar waxwing.
 
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While some birds, such as chickadees, eagles, owls and blue jays can be seen year-round in the Adirondacks, a great number of our avian friends take flight and wing on down south somewhere for the winter.

Bird migration can be one of the great sights of the spring and fall. Seeing a big 'V' of geese or watching the first robin of spring chase worms around the yard; these are the sights often associated with the spring migration.

Marshall Iliff, an eBird project leader based in Boston, said birds that stay over the winter aren't as dependent on bugs and insects as the birds that migrate. That makes sense when eagles and owls largely scavenge or eat rodents through the winter, while smaller birds frequent feeders or have their own seed stash hidden away.

Typically, Iliff said, most migratory birds are following the flush of life that comes with spring in most places.

"There's a lot of life that comes out in summer. That includes a lot of mosquitoes and black flies. That's kind of a natural cycle, cold winters and a real abundance of life in the summer," Iliff said. "So birds that are able to take advantage of that burst of life in summer can feed and raise their young more easily.

"But at the same time, they can't spend the whole winter there, so the way they cope with that is to move. They have wings; they can fly; so they migrate. Some birds and bats and butterflies are able to move north and south with the seasons to take advantage of the flush of life."

One of the most iconic Adirondack birds is the common loon, which also migrates to warmer wintering grounds. A protected species, the common loon is not so common, but is becoming more so with monitoring and protection.

This year's mild winter allowed some loons to stay on Lake Champlain through the winter months, but the smaller lakes of the Adirondacks froze solid.

Nina Schoch, a Ray Brook resident who is also a veterinarian with the Biodiversity Research Institute and program coordinator of BRI's Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation, said that Adirondack loons like the Cape Cod to New Jersey area, and may even venture a little farther south.

Some loons migrate from northern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, while others may only migrate 100 miles or so from their summer lake to the closest coast.

Schoch said that loon migration is basically dictated by ice on the lakes. Loons have a hard time walking on land, so they spend almost all of their time in the water. This means they usually leave the area in October or November, and will be back when the ice starts to go out.

"Usually they're back (typically males first, to reestablish their territories, followed by females a week or two later) the day the ice lets out on some lakes - usually late April," Schoch said. "This year, could be late March!"

Both Iliff and Schoch rely on everyday people helping with their monitoring of birds. Iliff helps run the eBird Project for the Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He said the project utilizes regular folks' bird sightings to track birds as they migrate.

The project has more than 300 million records that show when and where certain species arrive. Since the project relies on people to input their own data, costs can be kept down and everyone has access to all the bird data they want. Iliff said that this access has allowed individuals, groups and classes to conduct their own studies, which only adds to the knowledge base.

Schoch also relies on citizen participation, but in a slightly different way.

"Since 1998, we've captured a little more than 400 loons in the Adirondacks, of which about 300 have been banded (we don't band young chicks)," Schoch wrote in an email. The bands are different colors, and help Schoch and her colleagues identify individuals. BRI also takes advantage when a loon is captured to take blood samples and measurements of the birds that help researchers understand the impacts that lead, mercury and other contaminants have on loons.

BRI uses a large body of volunteers who monitor lakes across the Adirondack Park to keep an eye on both banded and non-banded loons. The volunteers locate nests early in the year, and then monitor them for the summer to see how many eggs are laid and how many hatch.

Iliff's website at www.ebird.org allows viewers to sort of track the birds in real time by monitoring the reports of where a bird species has been spotted.

Schoch's group has gone a step further by adding geolocators to loon legs. Iliff's data is available online but doesn't identify individual birds. But a loon with a GPS locator needs to be captured again to have the data pulled off of it.

"To download the data, we need to re-catch the same loon & retrieve the geolocator. We still need to re-catch most of the geolocator birds. Hopefully, we'll have luck this summer (since) they eluded us last year," Schoch said. "One geolocator we retrieved showed the bird went to the Buzzard's Bay area off the southern coast of Massachusetts. The satellite transmitter study we did several years ago (in 2004) showed that some of the birds went to the same area."

While loons loosely base their migration on the ice pack, other birds essentially come back to the area in waves.

Iliff said that some birds are consistently earlier than others. American woodcocks and tree swallows are two of the earlier species, but made record early returns to the southern Adirondack counties of Fulton, Hamilton and Herkimer this year. He said killdeer birds are more abundant that usual as well, though the species has made earlier arrivals in years past.

Larry Master, a Keene resident who runs the local annual Christmas Bird Count for the Audubon Society, said the late onset of winter meant that five species were spotted this year that had never been present before. The bird count took place on Jan. 3 this year, and Master said that for the first time loons, mockingbirds, white-crowned sparrows, merlins and cormorants were counted.

While the weather certainly played a part in keeping some species in the area longer than normal, Iliff said the changes in weather patterns and human-induced alterations to the landscape can threaten birds during migration.

Iliff said that the bright lights of cities, guy-wires on towers and windmills can all pose a threat to birds, as can urbanization.

Threats "are certainly getting to be more and more," Iliff said. Migratory patterns are developed over millions of years, and rapid changes that humans make can throw off the birds. But Iliff said that some precautions are taken.

"This past September 11th was one of the most epic migrations on the east coast," Iliff said. "One of my colleagues was there, and any time there's 1,000 birds in the beam (of the spotlights shining into the clouds) they have to shut it down (the spotlight). This year they had to shut them down more than any other time."

Birds that migrate face a variety of hurdles, including the above man-made ones. They face the danger of storms, predators and not having enough body fat or places to rest and recharge.

Schoch wrote that loons face "Weather, wind and storms being big factors, and a HUGE amount of energy expenditure as loons have to power their way - they are flying continuously, since they can't soar like raptors."

Other birds are more adaptable than loons since they can rest on land and in trees, but they still face the other threats.

Iliff said that as weather and climate patterns change, it can have a huge impact on birds, especially those that migrate long distances.

"There are some changes that are going to out-pace evolution," Iliff said. "One of the worries with climate change is that the weather that a bird is experiencing and using to cue it's migration off of could be really out of sync with the weather of the area they're trying to get to.

"A bird in Brazil trying to figure out if it's going to be an early spring in New York isn't going to have much information to go off of. They could really be in trouble if the early seasons start getting out of sync with their arrival patterns.

"One of the general feelings is that shorter distance migrants will be better (off) in a changing climate."

Migrating birds face plenty of hurdles during their travels, but a lot of people are helping out through monitoring and reporting. If you'd like to become involved, there are plenty of ways to assist. The Audubon Society not only conducts local Christmas bird counts around the country, it also runs a backyard feeder bird count. More information can be found at www.audubon.org.

Iliff's project relies on citizen scientists for observations and data input, but the eBird Project also allows anyone to access the data for free at www.ebird.org.

Adirondack loons have their own special section under BRI, and information about the studies conducted and how to become a volunteer are available at www.briloon.org/adkloon.