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Strange Birds Seen in Unusual Places

The National Audubon Society?s annual Christmas Bird Count shows that birds are being spotted in places hundreds and even thousands of miles from their traditional habitats. It may be due to the changing weather, but scientists can?t really explain it. ?It?s shaping up to be very interesting,? says Geoff LeBaron, the national coordinator for the annual Christmas-time tally.

The Christmas Bird Count, now in its 102nd year, tracks changes in the continent?s bird populations over the years by using local birders who look for birds in 15-mile diameter circles between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. So far this year, more than 50,000 participants have logged more than 1.8 million birds from the Caribbean Islands to Nome, Alaska.

They?ve discovered that West Coast birds are flying over the East Coast, and Arctic birds are being spotted in Texas. The prize for the most out-of-place bird goes to a long-billed murrelet, which was seen this week in Cayuga Lake near Ithaca, N.Y., instead of the Sea of Okhotsk off northern Japan, where it?s usually found. It has been reported less than 40 times in North American waters, most often off the Pacific coast.

A flurry of western hummingbirds and flycatchers have appeared on the East Coast. The Macon, Ga., count recorded Georgia?s first broad-billed hummingbird, a tiny Mexican flyer that usually comes no further into the U.S. than the southern tip of Arizona. Minnesota counters spotted a Eurasian brambling. A western tanager turned up in Maryland. An Arctic tern was taking the sun in Galveston, Texas. Birders in Chicago saw a Townsend?s solitaire from the high-mountain West. British Columbia birders saw a blue jay found 3,000 miles west of its usual haunts in the eastern woodlands.

Some ornithologists suspect that this winter?s unusual weather and changes in the jet stream have contributed to the wandering. The weather was apparently a factor when calliope hummingbirds, usually found in the Pacific Northwest, were seen among late-blooming flowers in Fort Tryon Park in upper Manhattan during the unusually warm early winter there.

At the same time, a shortage of seed and other food in the far north, perhaps caused by this year?s drought, has sent Arctic species from tiny boreal chickadees to snowy owls south into New England.

LeBaron led a count in Rhode Island and Massachusetts that spotted a varied thrush, a Pacific Coast cousin of the robin, and a barnacle goose that may be visiting from the high arctic in Greenland. Another barnacle goose is hanging around the campus pond and dairy barns at the University of Connecticut and others have been spotted on Long Island and in Gloucester on the Massachusetts coast.

LeBaron suspects some birds just may not have been noticed before. ?More and more people are out looking,? he says, ?And as they grow in their appreciation of birds and all nature they aren?t only able to notice a different looking bird, they are able to identify it.?

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