Seabirds and Shorebirds - Sailors for the Sea

Seabirds and Shorebirds

By: Liz Bergstrom, Climate Content Manager for the National Audubon Society | October 2, 2015

at Risk from Climate Change

Along the Gulf of Maine, you might be lucky enough to see Atlantic puffins—small black-and-white seabirds with comical-looking orange beaks. Back in the late 1800s, these birds were nearly hunted out of existence in the United States. Conservationists stepped in to protect them, and Project Puffin, established by the National Audubon Society, has since re-established puffin colonies on islands along the coast of Maine. But now puffins, along with other seabirds and shorebirds, face a different threat: the effects of climate change.

Rising temperatures around the world are changing patterns of weather and wind, as well as creating new impacts such as sea-level rise. These changes put pressure on wildlife to either adapt or struggle to survive. Although many kinds of birds are at risk from climate change—scientists at the National Audubon Society identified 314 climate-threatened species in a 2014 report called the Birds and Climate Change Report—seabirds and shorebirds face special challenges.

Where are the Fish?

Many seabirds and shorebirds rely on a very specific diet, especially to feed their young. Puffin chicks are well adapted to eat a few types of fish, says Stephen Kress, the founder of Project Puffin and Audubon’s vice president for bird conservation. Each pair of puffins raises just one puffling per summer on rocky islands, and one puffling can eat more than two thousand small fish before fledging and leaving the nest. (You can watch highlights from this year’s flock on the Audubon Puffin Cam.

Just as birds are uniquely adapted to fit their habitats, fish are sensitive to changes in ocean conditions such as temperature, salinity, acidity, and levels of plankton. When these conditions change, fish can move to new areas more easily than puffins, which breed on rocky islands and usually return to the same island year after year.

Kress says that staples of the puffin chick diet, like white hake, are now moving north and into deeper waters. This means puffin parents have to search farther to find food for their young or catch less ideal kinds of fish. In 2012, the Audubon Puffin Cam documented a young puffin starving because his parents brought him butterfish that were simply too big and oval-shaped for him to swallow.

Because the ocean ecosystem is made up of many interconnected parts, even small changes in sea surface temperature, acidity, rainfall, and other factors can have cascading effects. Kress notes that together these changes affect the productivity of coastal waters, ultimately leading to fewer forage fish and a decline in the average weight of puffin chicks. His research has found that lower body weight of fledging puffins leads to lower survival. He and the other scientists of Project Puffin are closely monitoring the health of these puffins and other seabirds that nest in the Gulf of Maine, while doing all they can to ensure their survival.

It’s All About Timing

Closer to land, shorebirds are also on the hunt for plenty of food to nourish their hungry chicks, so many parents time the hatching of their eggs at northern breeding grounds to match up with peak insect hatching. As insects respond to warming temperatures by hatching earlier in the spring, however, some chicks are arriving too late for the all-you-can-eat buffet.

For example, in Manitoba, Canada, shorebirds called Hudsonian godwits are struggling. Their young “are no longer timed to come out with the period of peak insect emergence, so a lot of their babies are starving,” says Stan Senner, Audubon’s vice president for bird conservation for the Pacific Flyway. “And that is directly a function of climate change and a mismatch between what the insects are doing and what birds are doing.”

While birds are resilient, it’s hard for them to change their habits overnight. “The rapidity with which these changes are happening [due to climate change] is really hard on the birds, so anything we can do to slow the change, give them time to adapt, that’s a positive thing,” Senner says.

Changing Winds and Rising Seas

Some seabirds and shorebirds migrate vast distances across the globe, relying on global wind patterns to help them get there. The Arctic tern migrates about 44,000 miles in a year, while bar-tailed godwits have been tracked flying nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand—more than 7,000 miles without rest.

Nils Warnock, executive director of Audubon Alaska, says that climate-driven changes in wind may affect these long-distance fliers. He and Senner also point to rising seas as a concern for coastal shorebirds that live along beaches, mudflats, and wetlands. As warmer waters and melting ice cause oceans to rise, much of this habitat may be submerged.

Piping plovers are one example of birds at risk from higher waters. “They nest on this narrow fringe of habitat that’s going to get clobbered by sea-level rise,” Warnock says. And increasing human population and development are already putting pressure on them.

But people can help provide coastal birds with a safe place to land. Senner emphasizes the importance of protecting areas that could serve as future wetlands. “As our shorelines are more hardened by development, there will be less and less ability for wetland habitats to migrate upward as sea level rises,” he says. “Where there are opportunities for wetlands to migrate up … we need to be looking at either purchasing those properties or obtaining conservation easements on them, so that we’re preserving the opportunity for the wetland to move.”

How You Can Help

Overall, we need to cut our emissions of greenhouse gases to slow the pace of climate change. One important step in this direction is the Environmental Protection Agency’s new regulations to reduce emissions from power plants. At home, small changes to use less energy as well as water can add up. Insulating windows, setting the thermostat higher in the summer and lower in the winter, supporting renewable energy, and taking shorter showers are all examples of ways you can help.

You can also learn more and consider supporting the work of Project Puffin and other programs of the National Audubon Society. With people and organizations working together, there’s hope for the future of these birds and our environment.

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