MUKILTEO — On a brisk Tuesday morning earlier this month, Rick Taylor stood sentry on the sidewalk at Mukilteo Lighthouse Park. Armed with binoculars, he panned over Puget Sound, searching for birds. It didn’t matter what kind, he said, just “ones with feathers.”
Taylor is a member of the Pilchuck Audubon Society and his hobby has taken him to tropical locales across the globe. Snohomish County, though, is where he gets most of his bird watching done. He’s been to all of the local haunts countless times — so many times that his wife has grown bored, opting to stay home more often than not. But Taylor said the repetition is worth it.
He compares it to “Pokemon Go.”
“You never know what’s going to turn up,” he said.
With climate change, that statement may ring more true than ever. Birds that have shied away from the Pacific Northwest’s gloomier seasons are now making once unthinkable journeys from far-flung places. However, other birds are leaving, preferring habitats farther north.
“For anyone listening to the birds, paying attention to the birds, climate change is pretty here and now,” Taylor said.
The annual Christmas Bird Count, organized by the National Audubon Society, offers a window into what these changes look like. Dating back 120 years, the national volunteer-run count is one of the oldest citizen science projects in the country.
Its long history provides a lot of data. The figures were put to use in a 2014 report on climate change. Looking at 588 North American birds, models suggest global warming is causing the birds’ habitat ranges to shrink and shift northward. Over half of the species could lose more than 50 percent of their current ranges by 2080.
Many birds will either adapt or die, said Chad Wilsey, co-author of the report and vice president of conservation science at the National Audubon Society.
Even if they do survive, he said, birds might be quarantined to micro-habitats that remain tolerable.
“The kind of birds that live today don’t exist in a broad sense in the future,” he said.
Taylor, who is retired, leads the Christmas Bird Count in the Edmonds area every December. He said volunteers have seen some new faces as a result.
For example: the swamp sparrow, a rust-colored bird that usually spends the colder months flitting through bogs and swamps in the American South.
The Edmonds group has occasionally seen the bird, but this year, volunteers spotted two. It was a big deal, Taylor said. The birds may have gotten lost during their migration, he said. However, according to models from the National Audubon Society, they may become a more familiar sight here.
It’s a story that’s already been told. The California scrub-jay — a striking blue-feathered relative of the crow — has made the journey from California to Snohomish County. And they’re not lost; they’re here to stay.
Scott Atkinson — Taylor’s Audubon counterpart in Everett — has tracked the scrub-jays’ journey north through the years. He recalls hearing about them in Chehalis. Next thing he knew, they were in Olympia. Then Tacoma, then Seattle.
Now, he can find them easily in Marysville, he said.
While new birds show up in Snohomish County, others appear to be leaving.
In 35 years, there have only been three counts where the greater scaup, a waterfowl with black feathers and beady yellow eyes, hasn’t been seen. Two of those times were in 2017 and 2018.
“There’s clearly something going on at scaup-land,” Taylor said. “They’re unhappy.”
The National Audubon Society’s climate change report says the greater scaup is moving north in the winter. By 2050, the waterfowl could lose more than half its summer range. Authors note that it’s “a very rapid change that this species may not be able to adapt with.”
Some other birds could disappear entirely, the report says. The Rufous hummingbird travels from as far south as Mexico to the northern reaches of Alaska. It’s a long flight for a bird that’s no bigger than a human thumb and that has a fast metabolism.
“It’s like driving from Northern Mexico to Canada in a car with a three-gallon gas tank,” Taylor said.
The journey is timed to the blooming of flowers. When that schedule goes out of sync, the population declines. The Audubon Society’s climate change report predicts the hummingbird will lose all of its winter range by 2080.
Looking at the plight of the hummingbird, Taylor said he’s started thinking about how humans might respond to climate change.
Specifically, he wonders about his own family.
“What’s the world going to be like that my grandsons live in?” he said.