By Ramona du Houx

July 6, 2013

New England birds are under threat from climate change concluded scientists in a detailed report, “Shifting Skies: Migratory Birds in a Warming World.”

According to Dr. Hector Galbraith, Northeast Scientist, National Wildlife Federation, about 20 to 50 percent of iconic bird species that come to New England are disappearing due to climate change. “If we don’t get our act together, we’re going to see major changes in the future that will make the changes we have seen pretty penny ante,” he added.

The study details how migratory bird species could become endangered and even extinct if we do not address the warming climate through conservation strategies and curbing greenhouse gases.

“From waterfowl to songbirds to shorebirds, the climate crisis is the most serious threat this century facing America’s migratory birds,” said Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.

The loss of migratory bird species due to climate change will affect the U.S. economy. In 2011, people spent more than $54 billion to watch wildlife and $1.8 billion was spent on migratory game bird hunting, according to the report.

Carol Oldham said that 40 percent of Mainers are bird watchers— the average across America is just 20 percent.

The Atlantic Puffins, a favorite of the Maine coast line, have disappeared by 30 to 70 percent, as their preferred foods are gone due to the marine system changing in Maine, according to Wells.

The baby puffins are being fed butterfish from their mothers in lieu of their usual fish, which are too big for them to swallow, as a result many are dying.

Tours to see the Atlantic Puffin are a huge coastal industry in Maine as many birders come from all over the U.S. to see them. The industry will be directly affected with the loss of the Atlantic Puffin, according to Wells.

Just in the past four decades, out of 305 species of migratory birds tracked, 177 have moved from their typical winter habitats on average of 35 miles northward, according to the Shifting Skies report.

Many species of birds are arriving two weeks earlier due to climate change, said Dr. Jeff Wells, Senior Scientist at the Boreal Bird Initiative and author of “Maine’s Favorite Birds.”

This has implications for the survival of migratory birds as it is directly connected with their feeding patterns.

“It’s a little bit like if you or I were fortunate enough to have situation where we arrived at 7 o’clock every evening with our families to our dinner table and there was always abundant food, and then the kitchen decided to shift the time to 6 o’clock and we never got the message, and we arrived at 7 and all of the food was all gone, ” said Wells.

The humming bird is also under threat from climate change.

“The arrival dates of hummingbirds have changed dramatically over the last decades,” said Wells.

Nectar is an important source of energy for hummingbirds as they migrate, but as the temperatures warm their migration pattern will change, which may cause them to miss the plants when they flower, according to the Shifting Skies report.

Also cited in the study is the threat to coastal bird habitats due to the rising sea level caused by global warming.

The average sea level has already gone up by 8 inches in the past century and it is predicted to rise another 12 to 48 inches in this century.

The rise in sea level will threaten habitats such as salt marshes, which are home to the Saltmarsh Sparrow, found in Maine.

Normally salt marshes would just recede further inland as the water rises, but this is not possible due to extensive human infrastructures from highways to buildings, said Dr. Pam Hunt, Senior Scientist at New Hampshire Audubon.

Man-made structures built to counter the rise in sea level may “exacerbate the loss of coastal wetlands by 20 percent,” according to the report.

Another huge factor affecting migratory birds is the Gulf of Mexico as many migratory species must cross through on their trip.

As storms increase in frequency and intensity in the Gulf, which we are already seeing due to global warming, the mortality rate of the species of birds crossing here will increase significantly, according to Galbraith.

The report has put forward a series of actions to combat climate change. Reduce carbon pollution, invest in clean and alternative energies to cut back on fossil fuel use, protect and restore forests and other natural lands that absorb carbon dioxide, and develop conservation strategies to protect and make habitats more resilient.