Since the late 1990s, enthusiastic birders have been flocking to Mount Desert Island every year, to celebrate the diversity of songbirds, seabirds and raptors found in Acadia National Park and surrounding areas.
Now, as the Acadia Birding Festival marks its 20th anniversary from May 31 to June 3, the gathering comes at a time of urgency, as a new Audubon and National Park Service study identifies as many as 66 species of Acadia birds that could become locally extinct by the year 2050, if nothing is done to reduce the impacts of climate change.
This year has been declared the Year of the Bird, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that protects birds, and sound the alarm about climate change’s potential impact and other environmental threats, with the hope of preventing species from becoming modern-day equivalents of the canary in a coal mine.
In an interview, Becky Marvil, executive director of the Acadia Birding Festival, said it is disheartening to see the findings of studies such as the effects of climate change on birds in U.S. National Parks. As more and more data are released, it appears the consequences of climate change could be more damaging to birds than anyone imagined, she said.
“It’s very sad,” she said. “A lot of birders have been aware of this for quite some time.”
Marvil said the Year of the Bird is important because it brings awareness to birds and the importance of habitat, conservation, and the environment.
“It’s a year of thinking of all the things that affect birds,” agreed Michael J. Good, a Registered Maine Guide and owner of Down East Nature Tours, and founder of the Acadia Birding Festival. And that means not only addressing climate change and conservation of habitat, but also cleaning up plastic, which seabirds can mistake for food, leading to death, he said in an interview.
Among the Acadia birds expected to be celebrated at the birding festival, according to festival trip descriptions, but also at risk of becoming locally extinct (extirpated) in summer or winter by 2050 if no steps are taken to address climate change, according to climate change researchers: Bald Eagle; Yellow-bellied Flycatcher; Pileated Woodpecker; Common Raven; and Common Loon.
Acadia Birding Festival features field trips, lectures, puffin boat tour
From looking for peregrine falcons at the top of Beech Cliff or from the base of the Precipice, to going on a tour of birding hotspots or an owl and night creature prowl, participants in the birding festival have a host of events to choose from over the May 31 – June 3 festival.
Among the highlights, a few of which are held before and after the festival: Trip to Saddleback Mountain in search of Bicknell’s Thrush; tour of Park Loop Road birding hotspots; boat trip to view Atlantic puffins and other pelagic seabirds; and keynote speeches by Laura Erickson, host of “For the Birds” that airs on public radio and available as a podcast; Marshall Iliff, eBird project leader for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; and Raymond VanBuskirk, owner of Brant Nature Tours in New Mexico.
About 300 registrants are signed up so far to attend the festival, including people from all over the country such as California, Arizona and Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Maryland and other New England states, a sizable increase since the first festival 20 years ago, when about 35 to 40 people attended. In addition, about 45-50 guide leaders will attend to run field trips.
The festival, among several occurring in Maine around the same time, is held late May into early June for a reason.
“If we did it a week or so earlier, the warblers might be more at their height of singing and visibility but the pelagic birds, it would be too early for them,” said Marvil, the executive director since 2011, and who has a master’s degree in ornithology from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
As long as the Pelagic Seabird Boat Trip is not canceled due to weather, Marvil said participants are assured of seeing Atlantic Puffin, which are found only in the North Atlantic Ocean, as well as, for instance, Razorbills, Arctic and Common Terns and, if lucky, Roseate Terns. The trip, held on the 112-foot-long Friendship V, travels to Petit Manan Island, a critical spot in the Gulf of Maine for nesting seabirds. “We stay off shore of Petit Manan for a good half hour and watch the birds flying around,” she said.
While most of the festival’s estimated 60 field trips are in Acadia National Park and on Mount Desert Island, the festival also includes trips to the coast well north of Acadia National Park and to islands such as Frenchboro on Long Island and Little Cranberry Island.
Last year, participants counted 157 species of birds. There are always some rare sightings on Mount Desert Island. The showy Black-bellied Whistling Duck, normally from Texas, or a Lark Bunting from Colorado, for example, have been spotted in the past.
“We never know what to expect,” said Marvil.
Year of the Bird a call for action to build better world for birds
Every month during the Year of the Bird, organizers are asking bird lovers to take some form of meaningful action to protect birds.
One of the actions being highlighted for the month of May: Taking part in the National Audubon Society’s new Climate Watch, a citizen science program to document how birds are responding to climate change. The next survey, open to the public, runs from May 15 to June 15.
Last month, organizers asked folks to work against attempts by the Trump administration and some members of Congress to weaken the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, by signing an online petition entitled “Stop Industries from Getting a Free Pass to Kill Birds.”
While 100 years ago, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act helped protect birds against hunters and poachers, the threats today, according to studies cited by Year of the Bird organizers: Power lines that kill up to 64 million birds a year; communications towers, up to 7 million birds a year; uncovered oil waste pits, another 500,000 to 1 million a year; and wind turbines, about 234,000 a year.
Then there’s climate change.
The National Audubon Society and National Park Service study that was released in March found that on average, 23 percent of bird species found in a given national park could be completely different by 2050 if carbon emissions continue at the current pace.
Some birds may become locally extinct at certain times of year, while other birds may move in and colonize, as climate changes.
In Acadia, the study estimates a higher turnover than average, of between 25 to 30 percent, with 60 of 143, or 42 percent, of summer Acadia bird species being extirpated by 2050, and 13 percent of winter bird species locally extinct by then.
At the same time, the study finds that Acadia may see as many as 45 new winter Acadia bird species, or an increase of 47 percent, and 12 new summer bird species, or an increase of 8 percent, as birds move with climate change.
Already, Good, founder of the Acadia Birding Festival, worries how climate change could affect the timing of the annual gathering. “Climate change was not an ‘issue’ ” when the festival first began, he said. “One fear of mine is that much of the ‘migration’ of land birds is shifting to earlier,” so that some of the early migrants will have already moved on by the time the festival is held in late May, early June.
“With climate change, there will be some birds brought to the brink in the Acadia area, while there will be new birds colonizing. Some might look forward to seeing a new species, while others might mourn the local extinction of others,” Good said.
But if some species, like Cowbirds, move in, that could “greatly impact our local populations,” he said. The Brown-headed Cowbird female is known for taking over other birds’ nests, laying eggs and abandoning the chicks to be raised by foster parents, to the detriment of other species.
“It is all about the winds,” Good said. “So if there is a sharp change in the type of spring storms or wind patterns each year due to climate change, then I suspect we could see differences in the types of migrants we find in Maine.”
But even independent of climate change, unusual wind patterns can lead to surprising finds, such as the Painted Bunting and Blue Grosbeak, normally found further south, that Good spotted on Mount Desert Island this spring.
For Good, perhaps of even greater concern than climate change: The need to protect bird habitat from fragmentation, improve water quality and fisheries, and reduce the use of plastics, which seabirds can mistake as food.