With this report, we try to answer one seemingly simple question: what is the state of the mountain birds of the northeastern United States? Using long-term data collected by citizen-scientists working on the Vermont Center for Ecostudies’ Mountain Birdwatch project, we have created indicators of population health for each species. These indicators reveal which species are thriving and which may be in need of our help. In doing so, we seek to understand where our conservation efforts have succeeded and where they have not. Where we have fallen short in our efforts to protect the birds of our mountains, we suggest solutions.
This report is also a chance to celebrate the hundreds of citizen-scientists who each year venture out in the pre-dawn darkness to count birds in the high country from the Adirondacks of New York to Maine’s Mount Katahdin. Their hard work and dedication allow us to gain unique insights into population trends of iconic species like Bicknell’s Thrush or Blackpoll Warbler and into the health of the mountain forests on which these birds depend. As we demand more and more from our mountains – as sites to generate renewable energy, as a source for clean water, and as places for recreation – this kind of information will prove increasingly important. Keeping mountain ecosystems healthy and productive in the face of climate change and increased use by humans requires science-based solutions, and science-based solutions require the sort of data collected under Mountain Birdwatch.
What is the State of Mountain Birds?
The results provide grounds for celebration and concern. During the 16 years covered by this report, some species have thrived. Some have not. Those with the most obvious gains were widespread species like Black-capped Chickadee and Swainson’s Thrush, which now occur in more places and in greater numbers than they did when Mountain Birdwatch began. Fox Sparrow, too, has shown an interesting pattern of increase; although still quite uncommon in the Mountain Birdwatch study area, populations seem to be on the rise.
The species showing the strongest signals of decline, in contrast, were those found only in the high country, notably Blackpoll Warbler.
So what is happening to the mountain birds? Why are populations of some species shifting so dramatically? On the pages that follow, we present and interpret the data for each species and consider actions that will ensure a healthy future for mountain birds.
Why Mountain Birds Matter
They are a unique part of our natural heritage.
The birds of our high mountains – from the Adirondacks of New York across the northern Appalachians to Maine’s Mount Katahdin – are mostly boreal species at the far southern extent of their range. One species, however, lives only on these mountains, and nowhere else: Bicknell’s Thrush. All of these birds find a home on the islands of spruce and fir that rise from the sea of temperate hardwood forests below. Together, they make up an entirely unique piece of our natural heritage, just like the Grand Canyon or the Everglades.
They are bellwethers of change.
Our mountain forests are valuable. Among other things, they provide us with clean water, free flood control, and a beautiful setting in which to play and to enjoy nature. Our mountain forests are also at grave risk from climate change. Documenting and understanding how climate change is affecting these forests is important, both as an act of bearing witness and in the hopes that we might learn how to minimize the effects. Tracking populations of mountain birds is an effective and efficient way of doing so: birds are sensitive indicators of environmental change and are relatively easy to study.
They are a source of joy and inspiration.
Sitting atop a mountain at sunrise, listening to the dawn chorus of bird song, provides for many people a visceral connection to one of our region’s last truly wild landscapes. These birds are icons of our mountains, and those special places would not be the same without them.
They attract visitors to our region.
Mountain birds also matter for practical reasons. Birdwatchers spend substantial amounts of money for the chance to see and hear the birds of our mountains, especially Bicknell’s Thrush.