Islanders fear ‘canary in the coal mine’ as climate warms

Audubon finds climate change threatens way of life of hundreds of bird species in Washington state.

Rufous hummingbirds, native to the region, are identified by the National Audubon Society as highly vulnerable to climate change (Boe Baty/Audubon Photo).

Rufous hummingbirds, native to the region, are identified by the National Audubon Society as highly vulnerable to climate change (Boe Baty/Audubon Photo).

A report released earlier this month by the National Audubon Society predicts that extreme heat, habitat loss and sea level rise driven by climate change will imperil more than two-thirds of birds native to North America in the coming years without action to stem the impacts.

The study found that in Washington state, under the most drastic scenario of a three degree Celsius rise in temperature, birds would stand to lose more of their summer range than they would gain, potentially leading to population declines and local extinctions if they are not able to adapt.

On Vashon, that could spell trouble for species including Rufous Hummingbirds, known for their long migration from Mexico to as far as Alaska. 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.

Margie Morgan said the Audubon study confirmed her own suspicions that birds are finding it harder to live in places where they have settled in the past. According to Morgan, when she last went to hear the dawn chorus of birds on Vashon marking the arrival of spring, the volume of their songs was quieter than it once was more than a decade ago.

Morgan believes it’s because there are fewer of them coming back. Now, she said, it is easier to single out the distinct calls of individual species from the chorus, leading her to speculate that there may be fewer birds returning to the island annually.

Morgan said the situation may be worse than people realize, noting her surprise to see the range of birds the report said would be jeopardized by climate change. Barn swallows, for example, used to nest in her carport, but they have stopped returning.

Audubon projects their summer range will largely remain the same in a warming world but noted that, like many species, they are susceptible to heatwaves and wildfires, both seeming to occur in greater intensity and frequency.

That led the Washington Department of Natural Resources to update a strategic plan this year for thinning and burning forests in the central and eastern parts of the state, getting ahead of the potential for wildfires to erupt such as the blazes currently wreaking havoc across California.

Meanwhile, local temperatures are climbing. The National Weather Service said that June’s scorching heat index set new records in Seattle. July was the hottest month on record in the world according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service, an agency based in Europe.

Morgan, who has lived on the island for 30 years, said she found her love of bird watching as a teenager. But the mounting challenges posed by climate change, Morgan said, coupled with a slow and limited response, make her worried for the future. That’s why she is vocal about things such as building nest boxes, keeping cats indoors and buying shade-grown coffee. The beans are cultivated under tall trees on South American plantations that aren’t clear cut for farming, preserving critical habitat for songbirds and other animals.

Members of the Vashon Audubon have plans to undertake a number of actions in the months ahead, from conducting island-wide research to attending Lobby Day in Olympia. The group will distribute copies of the Audubon report at an event at the Land Trust Building at 6 p.m. tomorrow, Nov. 1, and an information session about joining the annual Christmas bird count, which takes place on January 5, will be held there at 7 p.m. on Nov. 14.

Board President Julie Burman said that the organization is now promoting education around the island’s most sensitive bird populations in light of the report.

Those include Buffleheads, a small, nimble diving duck Burman said many admire for their colors and puffy bodies, which would be displaced once temperatures climb and threaten their northern breeding grounds. The flight of Violet-green Swallows, Burman said, is almost poetic. Like the Western Tanager — Burman’s favorite — Audubon listed them as moderately threatened by climate change because wildfire would destroy their habitat and spring heatwaves would endanger baby birds in their nests.

Another fan favorite of bird watchers on Vashon, said Burman, excites many for the sound of its call.

“[People] send text messages all over the island, ‘I heard a Swainson’s Thrush this morning,” she said. Considered highly vulnerable, they would lose their entire summertime range in the Pacific Northwest with a 3 degree Celsius temperature increase according to Audubon.

“When I saw all of them it was just heartbreaking,” said Burman. “Birds are truly the canary in the coal mine in terms of the wake-up call for us all about how our world is changing around us.”

She added that Audubon often exemplifies the Washington state legislature for many of the environmental advancements passed in recent sessions, such as this year’s landmark clean electricity bill, mandating that all utilities produce only carbon-neutral electricity by 2045.

Reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels would curtail the rise of temperatures globally — according to the Environmental Protection Agency, electricity production and transportation generate the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. But the Washington state legislature failed to pass a highly anticipated Clean Fuel Standard this year.

That hasn’t stopped the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency (PSCAA) from exploring the possibility of implementing a Clean Fuel Standard of its own. In the four counties the agency oversees — King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish — new regulations would set a target to make all fuel supplied or sold in the region 25% less carbon-intensive by 2030, opting for the use of electricity, blended biofuels and natural gas over gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles and other modes of transportation.

In an interview with The Beachcomber, the agency’s executive director Craig Kenworthy said the reduction could be met by utilizing Washington’s existing surplus of alternative energy sources such as hydropower. PSCAA, he added, is motivated to complement efforts that would further reduce carbon emissions, recently examining barriers to starting car-sharing services in low-income communities.

“Your goal is to always support the transit system and at the same time make the rest of the system work,” he said.

Kenworthy noted that an analysis found the economic costs of a carbon fuel standard would be minimal and would not reduce forecasted growth in the region.

“At the highest macro levels, it’s a wash,” he said, adding that fears of an increase in gas prices are misplaced because “that would assume the refineries do nothing to help themselves comply” with stricter standards.

If they didn’t, according to the proposal, gasoline companies could purchase credits from a system designed to offset the deficits generated by noncompliance — critics say that could mean higher prices at the pump, but Kenworthy dismissed the notion.

“The opponents are going to try to point to an increase in gas prices which is the worst-case scenario, but if you actually look at costs moving around, it’s basically the same,” he said.

Some may see proposals such as a regional Clean Fuel Standard as a sign of hope, and welcome more leadership on conservation issues, as crowds demanded in last month’s nationwide climate strikes. But rolling back emission levels and undoing the harm of a changing climate over the next several years may come too late for species such as the Western Grebe, once populous in Vashon waters.

Dan Willsie, an avid bird watcher since he was a boy, spent 12 years documenting the birds when they would flock to Quartermaster Harbor. That data helped pave the way for Audubon to establish the harbor as an important bird area in 2000.

But few come this way anymore.

“It wasn’t surprising to find 4,000 Western Grebes in Quartermaster Harbor on a day in the fall or early winter,” he said, noting they may have moved on to find a better food supply. “Now, in the Christmas bird count, you’re lucky to find 10 or 20. There are major drop-offs in everything.”

His advice to those discovering their own interest in bird watching is to make the best of the time that is left to view the animals in the wild.

“They ought to be aware that what they’re looking at may not exist in a few years, which isn’t great news,” he said.

The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s Clean Fuel Standard proposal is currently open to public comment online.

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