2012-11-15 / Editorial

Winged mysteries: Birds not where they belong


A mountain bluebird was spotted at Fort Getty recently, just the second time a confirmed sighting has been recorded in Rhode Island. 
PHOTO BY CHRIS POWELL A mountain bluebird was spotted at Fort Getty recently, just the second time a confirmed sighting has been recorded in Rhode Island. PHOTO BY CHRIS POWELL Last month, hundreds of visitors flocked to Jamestown to see something called a wood sandpiper, a bird that weighs as much as a handful of paper clips. So why was it such an occasion? Because a wood sandpiper has absolutely no business being in the Northeast.

It was the first time the Eurasian species has ever been spotted in New England. Sometimes, a vagrant sandpiper can touch down on Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, and on rarer occasions, it can even get lost in the south Pacific and end up in Hawaii. But New England? Unheard of.

Saturday, the island got another unexpected tourist: a mountain bluebird. While not from as far away as the wood sandpiper, the mountain bluebird belongs in the Northeast as much as a polar bear does, save for the ones that used to dwell at Roger Williams Zoo. The bluebird belongs out west – rarely does it migrate east of the Rocky Mountains.

Even more improbable, a separate mountain bluebird was spotted Sunday 120 miles north of Jamestown in Gloucester, Mass. Maybe they traveled together.

So it got me wondering: What are the odds that two birds – both extremely rare to the area – just coincidentally touch down within a month of each other? I know Jamestown is attractive for families, but I doubt sandpipers and bluebirds are flocking here for the schools and property-tax rate.

Can climate change affect the migration of birds? Are the warmer falls and shorter winters teasing the internal compasses of these birds?

Chris Powell, a former state biologist who chaired the town’s Conservation Commission for 26 years, thinks that changing weather patterns may be one reason. Powell says these birds may get caught up in winds, and because the weather is getting warmer during the fall, they just keep on coming – even if it’s in the wrong direction. Many are young birds that don’t know the ins and outs of migration, and if they aren’t hitting sheets of snow, what’s to stop them?

“We should market Conanicut Island as a bird-friendly place for both birds and birders,” said Powell.

Rachel Farrell, the state’s record keeper of birds, says that she doesn’t know if weather is to blame. She thinks that birds are susceptible to reverse migration, which means they travel 180 degrees in the wrong direction when it comes time to migrate. While the white ibis and pelicans spotted in Jamestown two weeks ago were easier to explain – Hurricane Sandy, says Farrell – there is no definitive answer for why the mountain bluebird was at Fort Getty. “We can’t be in their heads,” she quipped.

The best we can do is keep an eye – or a set of binoculars – on the situation.

— Tim Riel

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