Audubon’s New Climate Report and What it Means for Birds in the Arid West

Sandhill cranes. Photo: Scott Helfrich/Audubon Photography Awards

From Audubon’s Western Water Initiative (Karyn Stockdale):

Audubon just released a new scientific report, Survival by Degrees, showing that 64 percent (389 out of 604) of North American bird species are at risk of extinction from climate change. The good news is our science also shows that if we take action now we can help improve the chances for 76 percent of species at risk. We know what to do to protect the birds we love and the places we all need now and in the future.

Climate and Water in the West
In the West, we’re already dealing with a multi-decade historic drought and longer, more intense fire seasons. Climate change threatens western water resources and some researchers are calling our new reality “aridification.” Overall, the West has experienced increases in the severity and length of droughts over the past 50 years, taking a toll on water supplies.

Climate change not only alters the quantity of flows, but also the timing. Rising temperatures in the winter cause more precipitation to fall as rain rather than snow in mountainous areas from Colorado to California. Furthermore, warming temperatures are causing snow to melt earlier in the spring, altering the timing of streamflow in headwaters rivers.

The Colorado River’s water supply is stretched thin—due to diversions, over-allocation and climate change—and further increases in temperature will reduce snowpack and river flows harming the river and the 40 million people and 400 species of birds that rely on it. By mid-century, climate warming is projected to decrease total Colorado River flows by 20 percent from the observed historic average.

Likewise, across the network of saline lakes that dot the West—including Great Salt Lake—we see reduced water levels that can negatively impact millions of shorebirds, waterbirds, and waterfowl. These drying lake beds can cause health and economic problems as well as a decrease in food and habitat for birds.

It’s essential that we curb carbon emissions to limit temperature increases and work proactively, doubling down on conservation practices, so that these already stressed water ecosystems can sustain life in the arid West for decades to come.

How were the species evaluated?
Audubon scientists analyzed 140 million bird records, including observational data from bird lovers and field biologists across the country, to assess vulnerability for species based on the amount of a species’ range that may be gained or lost with climate change. Audubon designated species that may lose much more range across North America than they have potential to gain as climate vulnerable. Sources for this report include eBird, U.S. Geological Survey, North American Breeding Bird Survey, and Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

What does this mean for bird species in the arid West?
It should come as no surprise that western forests are one of habitat groups with the most threatened bird species in warming scenarios. As temperatures increase, drought, extreme heat, and fire will become more intense, more widespread, and more devastating across the West. This has implications for water quality and watershed health and will affect both birds and people.

Two examples of birds associated with Western Water priority freshwater and saline lakes habitats that are highlight climate vulnerable in Audubon’s report are Yellow Warbler and Long-billed Curlew. The bright, sweet song of the Yellow Warbler is a familiar sound in streamside willows across the West. Long-billed Curlews are often found around the Great Basin of Utah around emergent wetlands and marsh, as well as using agricultural fields where nesting and brood-rearing take place in pastures and hay meadows.

Of all the birds listed as vulnerable, there are distinctions between those that would respond favorably if we limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (versus 3 degrees C) and would benefit from our actions. For instance, if we keep the rise in temperature to less than 3 degrees C, we can protect birds like the Yellow Warbler and Long-billed Curlew in their summer range.

Birds associated with Western Water priority habitats that are highly climate vulnerable include:

  • Yellow Warbler (High vulnerability in 3 degrees C warming scenario especially in Oregon, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Moderate in summer at both 2 and 3 C)
  • Sandhill Crane (Moderate vulnerability in summer at 2 and 3 C with species projected to shift north and mostly out of the contiguous U.S. range)
  • Long-billed Curlew (High vulnerability rangewide in summer at 3 C including in Colorado, Utah, California, New Mexico. Moderate at 1.5 and 2 C)
  • American Dipper (High vulnerability in winter at 3 C particularly in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, California, and Arizona. Moderate in summer and at 1.5 and 2 C)
  • Other vulnerable species associated with Western Water and mentioned in the report:

  • Eared Grebe
  • Western Sandpiper
  • Marbled Godwit
  • Mountain Plover
  • Summer Tanager
  • Willow Flycatcher
  • Ridgway’s Rail and Clapper Rail
  • This is not an exhaustive species list and there’s much more information in the report on the 389 species vulnerable to a changing climate. One key takeaway is that if we reduce emissions by 2050 and hold warming to 1.5 C, we expect 38 percent of the species would come off the climate vulnerable list.

    What are the best ways to help birds (and people) in the West?

  • Improve resiliency for healthy watersheds (rivers, wetlands, and lakes);
  • Increase reliability of our water supply (now and in the future) through planning and cooperative, multi-benefit agreements among stakeholders;
  • Fund conservation and clean energy measures at the local, state, and federal levels (ask your elected officials to expand conservation funding and clean energy development in your community);
  • Restore and protect priority habitats;
  • Manage water comprehensively with an understanding of the connections between surface water and groundwater, and more;
  • Sign up for the Western Water newsletter to stay in touch and look for opportunities to help.
  • #Drought news: Four Corners sees a return to D2 (Severe Drought), “The monsoons rains failed us” — Jim Andrus

    North American Monsoon graphic via Hunter College.

    From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

    Since Oct. 8, the U.S. Drought Monitor has shown the Four Corners at level D2, or severe drought, the third-worst category out of five levels.

    The lack of moisture has been extraordinary, said Jim Andrus, a Cortez-based weather observer for the National Weather Service.

    July, August and September were way below normal precipitation levels.

    “The monsoon rains failed us. They never arrived because a consistent high-pressure ridge blocked them,” Andrus said…

    July saw just .45 inches of rain, or 35% of the normal 1.28 inches. August had .57 inches, or 39% of the normal 1.48 inches. September came in at .15, just 10% of the normal average of 1.55 inches…

    Poor soil moisture this fall is impacting the dryland winter wheat crop, said Gus Westerman, of the Dolores County agriculture extension office…

    During average precipitation years, soil moisture is 6 inches to a foot down, ideal conditions for planting winter wheat so it will sprout before the dormant stage. This year, soil moisture level has basically zeroed out for dryland farmers, he said.

    Not all is lost, though. When the snows come and the soil is replenished, the crop will still come up in the spring, but potentially with smaller yields. For farmers planting winter wheat now, a higher seed rate is recommended.

    Thanks to a 140% of average snowpack for 2018-19 winter and a wet spring, Cortez is still at 122% of normal for total precipitation. On Oct. 1, there was 11.36 inches of precipitation for the year so far, and the normal average is 9.33 inches. Average precipitation for the year is 12.57 inches. Also, McPhee Reservoir had strong carryover, and managers report that even a 50% winter snowpack will refill it.

    Southern Utah also is experiencing a severe dry spell. On Oct. 17, St. George, Utah, reported 122 days without measurable precipitation. That breaks the previous record of 121 days set in 1930, according to the National Weather Service.

    In 2018, from April to December, the Four Corners was in exceptional drought, the highest level at D4, and the hardest-hit region in the nation.

    @ColoradoClimate: Weekly #Climate, Water and #Drought Assessment of the Intermountain West

    Click here to read the current assessment. Click here to go to the NIDIS website hosted by the Colorado Climate Center. Here’s the summary for this week:

    Summary: October 22 2019

    The last seven day period started out warm and dry across the IMW [Intermountain West], but another dose of winter has hit in the northern half of the region. The Tetons, northern Wasatch, and northern Colorado Rockies received 0.50-1.50″ of precipitation in the last several days, mostly in the form of snow. Totals in the valleys, were mostly below 0.25″. Southern mountains did not fair as favorably. The San Juans, La Sals, and Sangre de Cristos received little to no precipitation.

    In general, the IMW is balancing the impacts of a hot, dry July-September against a remarkably cool and wet February through June. Results may vary by exact location. From an impacts standpoint, this dichotomy manifests itself as normal to above normal streamflows and reservoir storage, but below normal root zone soil moisture, and above normal plant stress. The wettest areas in winter, such as high elevations on Colorado’s west slopes, are most likely to have holdover soil moisture from winter/spring, and are showing less plant stress via satellite metrics, such as ESI. Areas that are climatologically drier in winter, and benefit from monsoon season rains have been hit hard.

    Having had our second round of below freezing temperatures, the growing season is now mostly over for the IMW. However, from an agricultural standpoint, recent dryness has had an adverse and important impacts on pasture range conditions, and winter wheat planting. New Mexico (Arizona) pasture range conditions are ranked as 33% (40%) poor, and 9% (20%) very poor respectively. Percent of area poor and very poor is lower in Utah and Colorado, and much lower in Wyoming. Colorado winter wheat has mostly been planted, though it needed to be drilled over SE CO due to dry conditions. Winter wheat planted in the latter half of the planting season has not emerged, and recent dry, windy conditions may lead to subpar emergence.

    A cold frontal passage diving out of the north on Wednesday and Thursday will bring a big temperature drop, and mostly light precipitation, to eastern Wyoming and Colorado. After that, the area will warm back up briefly. The CPC is predicting an increased chance of below normal temperatures for the 8-14 day period, but cooler air entering the region will be low in moisture content. The western IMW has an increased chance of below normal precipitation. The southeast portion of the IMW has an increased chance of above normal precipitation.

    Two Butterflies — Greg Hobbs

    Two Butterflies

    Two Butterflies went out at Noon –
    And waltzed upon a Farm –
    Then stepped straight through the Firmament
    And rested, on a Beam –

    And then – together bore away
    Upon a shining Sea –
    Though never yet, in any Port –
    Their coming, mentioned – be –

    If spoken by the distant Bird –
    If met in Ether Sea
    By Frigate, or by Merchantman –
    No notice – was – to me –

    Emily Dickinson, summer 1863

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    Greg Hobbs 10/23/2019 (Butterfly Pavilion, Westminster, Colorado)