Evidence of global climate change carried on wings of migratory birds

Robins are traditionally a harbinger of spring, but it is not unusual to see them in this area throughout the winter. In a pattern noted over the last five to 10 years, many migratory birds are leaving the area later in the fall and returning earlier in the spring.

Stan Roth looked outside a window in his house last week and couldn’t believe what he saw.

Spotting a broad-winged hawk at this time of year was an unexpected sighting. That it was seen in Lawrence was even more unusual.

“It was so surprising,” Roth, an avid bird watcher, said.

The sighting is so rare that when Roth sent an e-mail about it to state bird watchers, he was greeted with some skepticism.

But it has been that kind of bird-watching season during the past couple years in Lawrence.

Birds have migrated back to the area sooner than they did 10 years ago, and some local bird enthusiasts report seeing birds they don’t ordinarily see.

Bill Busby, associate scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey, said he noticed little blue herons – not the big ones – nesting near Lawrence.

Since the bird more commonly breeds in warmer southern states, seeing a little blue heron nesting in Lawrence was unusual.

“That’s the first to my knowledge that’s ever happened,” Busby said.

As for the timing of the birds’ migration, some suspect that changes in weather patterns could be responsible.

“We’re experiencing climate change all over the world,” Roth said. “Whether they call it global warming is a whole other issue, but the change in climate is being expressed in delayed migration in the autumn and earlier migration in the springtime.”

Busby said earlier migration in some species of birds has been a gradual pattern during the past five to 10 years.

This year has been roughly on par with that migration pattern.

“If anything, they’ve been average or late this year,” Busby said.

If it seems as though there are plenty of birds that fly around the Lawrence area, it’s because Kansas is one of the prime areas where birds migrate each year.

That keeps the legion of bird-watchers in the state happy each spring.

“Even though we don’t have a coastline or tall mountains, given that we’re landlocked, we’re about the best place in the country,” Busby said.