Painted Buntings, Fish Crows, and climate change

8 minute read


Summer is hot and meaningful action on climate change is slow in coming. So I am distracting myself with birds.

Man, it’s a hot one

I am writing this in the midst of an early August heat wave, and against the backdrop of the excruciating wait for the United States Congress to enact meaningful policy on climate change. I have been suffering from an emotional rollercoaster, more than once giving the whole “climate deal” up for dead, only to receive another tantalizing bit of news about how another compromise or deal breathed new life into the spending package. Currently (August 4), it looks decently likely that a much-reduced incarnation of the climate bill will pass both houses of Congress, but I will keep worrying until it is a completely done deal. There are people actively working to derail it even as we speak. More about that later …

In terms of the summer heat, I have been gaslighting myself a little bit and questioning whether maybe it has always been “this hot” in the Southeastern United States in summer. I grew up in North Carolina and had a series of summer jobs surveying forests and doing other ecological field technician work, so I was fully exposed to the worst heat that NC could throw at me. Subsequently, I missed out on quite a few Southeastern summers in a row. First I spent a few years doing fieldwork in the Rocky Mountains during graduate school, and then I enjoyed beautifully mild summers in Michigan while I was postdocing at Michigan State. We moved next to Maryland, with its famous stiflingly humid summers … but they just don’t last quite as oppressively long as summers in North Carolina and points further south. We moved back to North Carolina in late September of 2021, again missing the majority of summer.

Long story short, 2022 is the first year since 2010 that I have spent the entire summer in North Carolina. Because of that, I could plausibly say to myself that maybe I just don’t remember how hot it gets in the summer here. (Apart from the fact that even if summer isn’t that much hotter in one specific place, it is undeniably getting hotter across all seasons globally.) But I have to say, climate change has progressed to the point where I can directly perceive hotter and longer summers, especially hotter nighttime temperatures, and all the uncomfortable and dangerous consequences those high temperatures entail.

A Roseate Spoonbill (<i>Platalea ajaja</i>) like the one at Lake Wheeler
A Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) like the one at Lake Wheeler

The birds of summer

Now for a more positive spin on the “summer in NC” theme of this post! I have been a big fan of birdwatching ever since I was a kid, and I give birding (and the people who introduced me to it) a lot of credit for my eventual decision to begin a career as a biologist. I haven’t traveled a ton with the explicit goal see birds, mostly opting to look for birds wherever I happen to be. Because of that, there are some birds that are fairly common in the “Deep South,” whose typical summer ranges extend well into southeastern North Carolina, that I have never seen. Excitingly, I was able to see a couple of those birds this month right here in Wake County (home of Raleigh).

The first few were wading birds that often venture a few hundred miles north of their typical haunts during summer. A local hotspot where they often turn up is a marsh at the edge of Lake Wheeler, a fairly big artificial lake south of Raleigh. A road crosses the lake on a causeway, and there is a small “peninsula” that juts out of the causeway where you can post up and observe marsh birds far across the water. They’re usually pretty far away to see well even with binoculars (8x to 10x magnification), but a few friendly birders let me look through their telescopes (45x to 60x magnification). First, a Glossy Ibis showed up, followed a few days later by a Wood Stork, then a Roseate Spoonbill! I was thrilled to see all of them. My three-year-old son even got some good looks at the Spoonbill when a Bald Eagle spooked it and it flew a few laps around the marsh before landing elsewhere.

A male Painted Bunting (<i>Passerina ciris</i>) like the one at Dix Park
A male Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) like the one at Dix Park

After seeing those exciting birds at Lake Wheeler, I saw on the Wake County Rare Bird Alert page on that a Painted Bunting had been seen at Dorothea Dix Park less than a mile from home! Our whole family rushed there and saw the bird, a colorful and jaunty male singing loudly from a prominently visible spot in the top of a small non-native elm tree. I have to use the term “magical” to describe the experience of seeing such a stunning living thing for the first time. The male’s colors are unparalleled, with a royal blue head, vivid red belly, and lime green back patch, and it has a cheerful, twittering song. We have been returning to see it again and again for the past three weeks, and the show shows no sign of stopping. The bird is very cooperative and spends a lot of time preening and singing on his favorite perches, flying back and forth between the same few trees. It has been fun to chat with the diverse crowd of people who have come to the park to take a look at the bird.

Why all this talk of birds? Well, while I have been enjoying the summer birdlife of Wake County, and while a few individuals of these southern species have been making their way this far north for many summers, it does make you think that maybe they are harbingers of change. Maybe these species are extending their ranges to the north because of warmer temperatures, and maybe in a few years it will be commonplace to see them in Wake County in the summer. In fact, a birder who I would guess is about my dad’s age was talking about a similar trend the other day while we were watching the marsh birds. A ragtag bunch of Fish Crows flew by, cawing nasally. The birder told us that when he was a kid growing up in Wake County, the only place to see Fish Crows was around the Neuse River in summer (closer to the Coastal Plain). Then they started appearing all around the county in warmer months, and now they even hang around in the winter too. I would like to say that I have noticed Fish Crows increasing in abundance too, but I think it is more that I only really realized how to tell their distinctive nasal cawing apart from an American Crow three or four years ago. Either way, they are getting more and more common around here, probably as a result of the warming climate.

A Fish Crow (<i>Corvus ossifragus</i>) like the ones all over Wake County
A Fish Crow (Corvus ossifragus) like the ones all over Wake County

So it’s been a thrill to see all these new birds, but foreboding about climate change is in the back of my mind as always. When (not if) the climate deal is finalized, I will have a little more reason for hope. Of course, I don’t think the climate deal really goes far enough. It is a good start for transforming our energy and transportation systems. But it largely ignores the food system, which is both a huge contributor to climate change and imperiled by it — with more heat waves and extreme weather, it will be harder and harder to sustain agriculture as we know it. I think I will save a fuller discussion of that for my next blog post.

Note: I do not have good enough camera equipment to get passable photos of the bunting, spoonbill, etc. There are many photos of them on the Wake County eBird media page, and the individual species pages for Wake County, for example Painted Bunting and Roseate Spoonbill. But I cannot legally repost those images on this blog so I have used public domain images of the birds, not pictures of the specific birds seen in Raleigh!

Leave a Comment