Radar Image from early evening on September 25 captures massive bird migratory movement.
Radar Image from early evening on September 25 captures massive bird migratory movement.

GreenWatch: Fall Birds, Birds, and More Birds

by / Sep. 28, 2015 8am EST

GreenWatch: This months relative abundance of migrating birds and insects bring beauty, nature, and biodiversity into our region.

September 2015 has been characterized by some of the most beautiful autumn weather that many of us can remember. Warm temperatures and sunshine have helped us to remain in the summer mood. We have been encouraged to flock to the outdoors to enjoy one of the most spectacular places on earth, Western New York and Southern Ontario. On the shores of the Great Lakes.

During the past few weeks we have been witness to an abundant fall bird migration.  This migration has been especially obvious along our Lake Erie waterfront.  The Buffalo based radar image accompanying this article is from the early evening of 25 September 2015.   It comes to us courtesy of Buffalo Audubon’s Tom Kerr. It depicts millions of birds taking to the air as they begin their nightly journey. Similar radar images from across northern North America reveal the migratory paths. Last spring we published a story about the spring migration of warblers, which includes an explanation, and animations, of the radar images from then.

If you are a birder, and there are lots of us, you probably have visited Times Beach Nature Preserve, Tifft Nature Preserve, and even the slightly inland Forest Lawn Cemetery recently to observe and experience the millions of fall warblers that have been coming through our area. They are on their way from more northern nesting territories, and heading south. Some are going to the southeast United States and the Caribbean, some are going to Mexico and Central America, and some are going to travel as far as South America’s Amazon region, and beyond.

The Buffalo and WNY area has connections to two of North America’s principle avian flyways, the Mississippi and Atlantic. We are also at a point in the Great Lakes where birds that follow shorelines historically come to and through.  The Niagara River Corridor “globally significant” Important Bird Area (NRCIBA), was so designated in the 1996 in part because of the importance of this region to migrating birds. Buffalo’s Outer Harbor and Times Beach Nature Preserve are considered to be the “Western Gateway” to this world- recognized asset, the NRCIBA.

The fall warbler migration is one of several spectacular bird migrations that take place in our special region throughout the year. We have spring warblers and songbirds, spring, late summer and early fall hawk and shorebird migrations, the fall warbler and songbird migrations, and next up- the most spectacular gull and waterfowl migration on the planet. Starting late in November huge numbers of gulls and waterfowl come through here in varieties not seen anywhere else. Some are rare. Some are endangered. All are at risk. One species of gull, the Bonaparte’s, comes through here in numbers that represent a significant portion of their worldwide population as they travel from the boreal forests and coasts of the northwest, on the way to winter roosts in the Atlantic. At least 19 species of gulls have been observed during this migration. On some days there are over 100,000 Bonaparte’s gulls flying along the Niagara River Strait. Our September 13, 2015  Sunday Morning TV show published every sunday morning on the Public’s website Profiles the Niagara River Corridor. Watch “The Natural Niagara” here.

We will write more about the gull migration and the appearance of winter waterfowl in an upcoming column. 

In addition to the birds, this fall has brought us for the first time in a long while, a relative abundance of migrating butterflies. The Monarch Butterfly, being studied for possible protection on the Endangered Species List, has shown up these past few weeks in numbers not seen here for almost a decade.  Part of the Monarch migration has traditionally including gathering on the Canadian shores and then a relatively short but tough flight across the waters to the American shoreline where they rest and feed on fall flowering nectar plants as they prepare for the long and arduous flight to a mountaintop region in Central Mexico. For thousands of years, our shoreline and region has been a staging area for Monarch Butterflies. In recent years the Monarch population has been in precipitous decline.  It wasn’t that long ago that it was common to see dozens or more Monarchs in a single gaze in many natural settings during September. Some times, and at some places including Times Beach Nature Preserve, it was not that unusual to count hundreds per day. And then, starting about five years ago, there were none.

The reasons for the vanishing Monarchs are the same reasons that we are loosing many of our beneficial insects, such as bees, and birds.  Make that “most” of our insects and birds. You probably have heard of Colony Collapse Disorder that has caused the honeybee population to crash in many parts of the world. Loss of habitat (including for the Monarchs both their host plant, Milkweed, and fall flowering nectar givers including goldenrods and fall asters) and the stunning overuse of pesticides including the very popular, and very deadly herbicide Round-up (glyphosate) a probable carcinogen that is linked to killing everything from soil biotics to people. And then there is climate change.  Intense and escalating weather patterns including severe storms, drought, and other turbulences have made migration and breeding difficult for many species of birds and insects, including and notably the Monarch butterfly.

For the past couple of years we have had a relatively aggressive program at Times Beach Nature Preserve, located on the waterfront in downtown Buffalo, to remove many of our invasive species and replace them with native species.  We have had an emphasis on both bird conservation and pollinator conservation with intense focus on both Monarch’s and native bees. For the past couple of years we have been both nurturing milkweed at the preserve, and planning fall flowering plants which had all but vanished due to the invasives that had taken over much of the property.  We also brought in living Monarch’s including adult butterflies and caterpillars as part of a partnership between the Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve, and the Eastern Monarch Butterfly Farm based in Clarence New York. The results have been stunning.

Sunday Morning TV at the Public: 

Sunday, 30 August 2015 Western New York Butterfly Parade  

Sunday, 9 August 2015-Monarch Butterfly Release at Times Beach with the Eastern Monarch Butterfly Farm

On some days during this September at Times Beach, we counted over 100 Monarch Butterflies during a few hours count period as they came across the lake, along the shoreline, and resting and feeding at the naturre preserve. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of these vanishing beauties have been given a boost by our efforts here in Western New York. Does this mean that the Monarch population is recovering?  It is too early to tell, but early indications suggest that there is a bump up. However it is an important thing to know that overall, bird and butterfly populations including beneficial pollinators are in deep trouble.  According to numerous reports we have lost nearly 70% or more of our oceans wildlife and equal amount of our land and bird populations. There is an ongoing extinction, that if we do not find ways to better understand and try to deal with, will include human beings in the not to distant future.

We have to remain vigilant and to continue to fight hard to protect our vanishing natural resources. Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical, which we wrote about here,  and his just concluded visit to the United States, which featured speeches to a joint “meeting” of Congress, and the United Nations, focused on what he has described as “The Rights of Nature”. His perspective, which we wholeheartedly share (even as a non-catholic), points out that egregious activities by humans are both creating climate change and the negative environmental, social, and economic consequences affiliated with climate change. We are in deep trouble and the Pope is ariculating this.  Human activities described by the Pope include a growing reliance on an economic system that depends on use of natural resources (including pollution and waste). this economic system (globalized free market capitalism) relies on products extracted from limited natural resources (forests, waters, and habitat), promotes unending growth, and treats environmental and social consequences as “externalities.”  It helps to point us to better understanding  the divide often described as the disparity between the .01% that own and control the world’s wealth and the 99.9%  that do not. This economic system, according to the Pope, is destroying nature. Biodiversity vanishes. Biodiversity sustains nature and climate, and human quality of life. The Pope takes it one step further. Although humans are suffering the horrible consequences of our own predatory activities, he points out that nature was here before us, and represents something larger than humanity. We must learn to respect the rights of nature. Because in the anthropocentric context, nature and not technology and the politics of money sustains us, and in the non-anthropocentric context, nature, as my departed SUNY UB friend Lester Milbrath  put it in his final and very consequential 1996 book “Learning to Think Environmentally While There is Still Time”  ”Nature will bat last.”