County, bird watchers brace for a warming world

A recent study suggests environmental issues can be foreshadowed by what is happening to birds.

Climate change could impact Rufous Hummingbirds, visitors to the island during their long migration from Mexico to as far as Alaska. The National Audubon Society says that dramatic warming could affect the flowers they visit for nectar and reduce their summer range by as much as 70%, pushing them far out of the region and the western half of the state entirely (Boe Baty/Audubon Photo).

Climate change could impact Rufous Hummingbirds, visitors to the island during their long migration from Mexico to as far as Alaska. The National Audubon Society says that dramatic warming could affect the flowers they visit for nectar and reduce their summer range by as much as 70%, pushing them far out of the region and the western half of the state entirely (Boe Baty/Audubon Photo).

The Puget Sound region is home to lush wilderness, scenic shorelines, and a rapidly increasing population of more than 4 million people prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Responding to a different crisis, last week, the King County Council put forth a climate policy plan that would cut carbon emissions faster than current targets and help the county take another step forward in the fight to slow climate change.

The proposed legislation would accelerate the shift of King County Metro’s fleet to all-electric by 2035 as well as make room for more electric vehicle charging stations at county offices, parks and park-and-rides. It would create a pipeline of new green jobs and provide local governments with recommendations on how to minimize greenhouse gas emissions and protect the environment as part of a new Climate Action Toolkit.

The 94-page document complements the county’s now-finalized 2020 Strategic Climate Action Plan Update, which has set a series of ambitious goals detailing the county’s climate change activities over the next five years, including an emphasis on reducing regional greenhouse gas emissions, planning for the impacts of climate change and fostering resilience in communities that will be disproportionately harmed.

During the county’s collaborative process to develop it, the new toolkit received input from the Vashon Climate Action Group. Outreach consisted of stakeholder meetings with numerous climate justice and environmental advocacy organizations, frontline community leaders, unions, urban and state governments, residents, utilities, and members of industry. The toolkit is designed to be a flexible guide for communities to use to help develop customized strategies in preparation for climate impacts. It is intended to offer actionable and realistic solutions for how to minimize greenhouse gas emissions most efficiently and rapidly. The action items in the toolkit lay out a framework that communities can use to monitor their own emissions generated by transportation, expansion or industrial activity, and balancing priorities while meeting the climate crisis head-on.

In a press release, Council Chair Claudia Balducci said that local and regional governments will need concrete action in the absence of leadership at the federal level, adding that the toolkit will empower every King County jurisdiction to optimize its efforts to address the climate crisis.

The ways that humans have shaped and altered the planet are well-known, but researchers continue to sound the alarm as nature is forced to a breaking point in many parts of the world. Scientists presented research to the United Nations last year concluding that the biosphere is being altered to such an alarming degree that humanity’s fate is at risk from the ongoing destruction of too many of the Earth’s resources. This week, the insurance company Swiss Re published a study showing that a fifth of countries worldwide are at risk of experiencing a complete collapse of their ecosystems due to the loss in biodiversity they have directly caused.

The report noted that over half of the world’s GDP, equivalent to $41.7 trillion, depends on healthy ecosystems that support food, clean water and air.

Improper land use is one big cause of the environmental breakdown. The new toolkit from the county discusses the need and urgency for practices that enhance soil sequestration and curb dependency on toxic chemicals to combat unwanted pests and weeds. But there are signs that not enough is being done fast enough to save populations of endangered animals, including birds. According to a report published in the journal Science last month, bird numbers have declined by almost three billion across North America over the past fifty years, with an overall decline in abundance of species that are still common by as much as 29% since 1970.

According to the study, greater urbanization and agricultural intensification, exacerbated by the use of toxic pesticides in both bird breeding and wintering areas, are both linked to declines in the diversity of insects on which birds rely. In bird populations and among other insect consumers, this decline was found to have rippling effects. The study indicates that a much greater issue can be foreshadowed by what is happening to birds, suggesting similar or greater losses in other classes of species.

That has the attention of the bird watchers of the island, including Adria Magrath, vice president of Vashon Audubon, who said that with the pandemic raging, the organization has focused on the ties between people and nature, hoping to raise awareness of at-risk birds due to long-term changes in habitat and food availability, and educating people about the importance of native plants and habitat.

“Everything is so connected,” she said. “If I can convey that somehow to people, how connected their lives really are [to nature], even if they aren’t aware of it… Even just those decisions that everybody thinks, like, ‘Oh, I’m just one person,’ no, all of our decisions all add up, whether it’s the birds or the salmon or, you know, where the salmon are spawning. It’s all connected.”

While pivoting away from hosting in-person field trips and lessons, the Vashon Audubon has been busy, providing a showing at the Night Light Drive-In this summer that featured the wildlife photography of islander Jim Diers taken at Fern Cove over the year. In partnership with the Vashon Center for the Arts and the Vashon Nature Center, artist Britt Freda completed her murals of Red-breasted Nuthatch and Violet-green Swallows in Vashon Center for the Arts’ Heron Meadow.

Many islanders, meanwhile, who are staying closer to home these days, are going out to birdwatch themselves. Ezra Parker of Audubon said he believes the pandemic has made islanders appreciate Vashon’s ample, open space more than they may have in the beginning. To that end, the organization is now allowing islanders to borrow binoculars for up to two weeks, cleaned before and after use, to see the sights themselves.

Much of the more official Puget Sound bird population research is carried out by the Seattle Audubon and the University of Washington, but Magrath said it is not possible to underestimate the influence of citizen scientists who made birdwatching and the Audubon what it is today. Some of the island’s Audubon members are now surveying half a dozen sites on the island for cliff-nesting pigeon guillemots as part of an assessment of the species in the region, which could potentially become endangered if water temperatures rise as a result of climate change.

“We’re hoping it’ll be a snapshot of the health of the ecosystem because they eat fish. So not only watching them nest, but we’re also seeing what they’re catching and what prey they’re delivering to their babies, and are their babies surviving, and those kinds of things,” Magrath said.

But the annual Christmas bird count, drawing more than 75,000 citizen scientists each year to lead a tally of birds across the western hemisphere, may not happen at all in 2020. That may mean even less of a chance of spotting a western grebe, a long-necked diver that once flocked every winter to island waters. Magrath said that during their migration, island birdwatchers hunt for the grebes tirelessly, usually having no luck finding one here.

“It’s really interesting to see how things have changed over time,” she said. ”In Quartermaster Harbor, you had tens of thousands of Western grebes overwintering. And in a very short time, it’s gone down to almost zero.”

They are not the only ones that have changed their habits. Islander Sue Trevathan said that seasonal bird migration is occurring earlier as the planet continues to warm.

“There are certain birds that are already adjusting their ranges and moving farther north. We’re seeing that with a few birds — we’ve had some blue jays occurring in Washington State that have not been found here before. There are other birds that have just moved their ranges north. And that’s pretty unusual,” she said.

Moreover, the recent wildfire smoke that filled the Puget Sound sky and spread across the lower 48 states was no help to the birds. Last month, a case in New Mexico saw the unexplained deaths of hundreds of birds that some experts think could have been due to effects from the smoke, such as causing respiratory distress, while other factors possibly contributed to the mortality event, namely a lack of food due to sudden weather conditions.

“For me, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, is this the future?’” Trevathan said.

Around the island, at least for now, the birds that still visit Vashon are sticking to their itinerary as closely as possible. Loons, Grebes, Surf Scoters and other marine birds are arriving on the island’s shores. The Varied Thrush, the Hermit Thrush, the Ruby-crowned Kinglets and the pinecone-eating Red crossbills, to name a few, have also arrived for the winter.

“They will move from forest to forest pretty regularly and they make a lot of noise when they’re in flight so you can definitely hear them now,” she said. And there’s plenty more. Islanders are sure to see plenty of Wigeons en masse in Tramp Harbor these days, and Red-tailed Hawks and Bald Eagles, among the raptor population, will soar overhead while looking for a meal.

Trevathan said that bird watching makes her feel connected to her surroundings.

“It is my passion,” she said. “I spend a lot of time outdoors. And if I can focus on the birds and monitor the birds closely and educate myself more and more about birds, you know, I’ll understand them better and understand my place in the world better. And how I can advocate for them.”

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