Steve Gillam, Starved Rock volunteer Tom Williams and Starved Rock State Park natural resource coordinator Lisa Sons exchanged jokes and friendly chitchat as they trudged over a muddy path along a field edge, wetland and woods at Matthiessen State Park.
They were not seeing many birds, despite sunny, breezy conditions and diverse habitat, during their after-lunch hike over their territory in the Starved Rock Audubon Society Christmas bird count. And they said they had not seen many birds in the morning among the oak trees and canyons in the Matthiessen Dells area.
They were surprised that they didn’t see a yellow-bellied sapsucker, a hairy woodpecker or any red-headed woodpeckers, even though the oak-filled lawn was prime habitat. They had seen red-bellied woodpeckers and large pileated woodpeckers, Audubon Society Christmas bird counts have been showing a decline in red-headed woodpecker numbers in the U.S. northwest of the Ohio River for several years now.
Earlier on the three-day count, on Dec. 30 in the Marseilles area, they had spotted two yellow-rumped warblers, which often would have gone south by now.
“They didn’t get the migration memo,” Sons said, half-joking.
Fun hike with a serious edge
Though they were having a pleasant time on the New Year’s hike, the birders also expressed concerns.
“This year altogether we’ve noticed how quiet it is,” Williams said.
He has participated in the bird count hikes, comprised of three days of counting, since 1969, when he first participated at age 12 with his father, Jerry.
Sons discussed stories, studies and statistics she has seen from the national Audubon Society about a crash in bird populations nationwide and worldwide.
During the hike, Gillam started talking about a study that indicated some sparrows that came into contact with insect-repelling neonicotinoid, used to pretreat corn and soybean seed, had their appetites suppressed before migrating. The sparrows in the study departed two or three days late on migration, and then have difficulty completing migration or could arrive late and not find mates. (Makers of the pretreatment coating, Bayer, refute claims that their product is a factor in population decline.)
The three discussed the journal Science report from September 2019 that populations of birds in North America have declined by 3 billion since 1970. Populations of grassland birds have declined by 53% and many shorebirds are in decline, according to the author of the survey report, Ken Rosenberg, a conservation scientist at the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology.
Their study noted habitat loss, including the use of land for biofuel production, and urbanization as major factors for the decline, but other causes have not been pinpointed. Rosenberg said raptors and certain waterfowl populations have been holding their own and rebounding, due in part to habitat restoration efforts — those at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge Hennepin come to mind, but he and researchers said they were surprised to see even thriving introduced species such as starlings and house sparrows declining somewhat, too.
The Cornell study notes grassland species in the greatest decline, but also noted “forests alone have lost 1 billion birds.”
Cornell lab director John Fitzpatrick and coauthor Peter Marra summarized the study released in September 2019 as, “A staggering loss that suggests the very fabric of North America’s ecosystem is unraveling.”
During the afternoon hike, Sons expressed concern about not seeing many birds in tall grasses, the woods or wetland potholes in the state park. She said she hopes it’s not like Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”
“It’s silent winter,” she said, between occasional sightings of juncos, a couple of tree sparrows and a flock of crows.
Gillam, Williams and Sons turned in their findings to Alyssa Rod and Starved Rock Audubon Society, which was compiling totals from four groups on the Christmas counts. They performed counts in a 15-mile radius of Hennepin on Dec. 18, a 15-mile radius of Illini State Park on a windy, cold Dec. 30, and a 15-mile radius of Starved Rock State Park on New Year’s Day.
They said the chapter will send its compiled lists to National Audubon Society, which records all the lists, and may or may not spot trends.
Before the quiet New Year’s hike, the groups had seen a few birds that were not extremely common during the counts — three pipits, a hermit thrush, five American black ducks, a cackling goose pair (a newly recognized species smaller than a Canada goose), and, for the second straight year, a pair of short-eared owls. The Starved Rock area bird counts had not encountered the short-eared owls in 11 previous years.
ON THE WEB
Cornell study: https://www.birds.cornell.edu/home/bring-birds-back
Audubon maps and data: https://www.audubon.org/conservation/where-have-all-birds-gone
DID YOU KNOW?
Radar picks up flocks of migrating birds, and a Cornell University scientist studying NEXRAD radar network maps through the years said the “biomass” of the blobs of birds in the night skies has declined by 14% since 2007.