Spring Migration in a Pandemic

This morning was the first day that Fort Harrison State Park was charging for admission again after a period of nearly 2 months when the park was open with no fee to help park employees social distance. It demonstrated an example of the combination of good and bad factors for wildlife that I have observed since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

There has been much discussion on the Internet of how Covid-19 might be benefiting wildlife. People have posted photos of animals in places that they would never be seen because they are typically crowded with humans and vehicles. People have also posted some hilarious memes making fun of those photos. One of my favorites comes from Reddit, where someone posted that dolphins are returning to the Indianapolis canal:

dolphin canal

Nature is healing! đŸ˜€

I have a hypothesis that migrating birds are being positively affected by the decrease in air traffic, cruise ships, and lights in tall office buildings. It is far too early to tell if this is true, but we may eventually have enough data to test it.

One negative affect that the pandemic has had for wildlife is that trails have been heavily crowded. This has taken away quiet habitat for some animals, and it has resulted in more clearing of undergrowth and more erosion. I notice that the trails in my area, especially at the state park, are wider than usual, and more offshoots from the primary trails have been cleared. It is good that people are staying active and that they are giving each other space on the trails, but it is definitely affecting growth on the forest floor. I sadly have to admit that I have stepped off trails a few times per day so people can pass at a safe distance. Plants should be able to recover from this, but erosion is often irreversible.

Today was a magical day for me because Fort Harrison State Park started charging admission again. I was mad at myself for oversleeping this morning and worried that I missed all the good birds, but when I arrived at the state park at 10:00 AM it was as quiet as it has typically been at 8:00 AM. I birded for about 2 hours until noon, and the park still was unusually quiet. I saw few runners or children and no dogs. There weren’t the usual dozens SUVs in the parking lots, just a few small cars. I mostly saw other walkers and birders.

Despite starting my day 2-3 hours late, there were more birds than I have ever seen. I can’t help but think that a quieter park made the birds more comfortable and made it easier for the birders to see and hear them. This morning, I added 4 new warbler species to my life list:

  • Tennessee Warbler
  • Chestnut-sided Warbler
  • Blackpoll Warbler
  • Wilson’s Warbler

I recorded audio of the Tennessee Warbler. Bay-breasted Warblers were everywhere. I counted 7.  I enjoyed long observations of a Black-and-white Warbler and Blackpoll Warblers. I spent about 10 minutes with another birder I bumped into. We were surrounded by warblers and trying to ID them all and keep track of them. We heard a Magnolia Warbler and finally were able to find it and get a good look at the male in his beautiful breeding plumage. I saw a total of 41 species of birds. It was a pretty amazing morning.

In the spring, I typically work 6 days per week with long hours, dealing with all the commitments that come with the last few months of the school year. With the pandemic, I have instead been home 7 days per week with e-learning happening 3 days per week. I have had to spend a lot of time on work for my teaching job and graduate school, but I have been able to work in time to bird every day. I am currently on a 45-day streak of eBird checklists. This has given me the chance to add 18 new species to my life list since the start of the pandemic:

  1. Barred Owl
  2. Louisiana Waterthrush
  3. Prairie Warbler
  4. Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  5. Worm-eating Warbler
  6. Black-throated Blue Warbler
  7. Veery
  8. Summer Tanager
  9. White-crowned Sparrow
  10. Caspian Tern
  11. Kentucky Warbler
  12. Blackburnian Warbler
  13. Bay-breasted Warbler
  14. Ovenbird
  15. Tennessee Warbler
  16. Chestnut-sided Warbler
  17. Blackpoll Warbler
  18. Wilson’s Warbler

And I am sure I am not done yet.

I have noticed–and eBird has noticed–that there are a lot of new people getting into birding or getting more serious about birding. There are tons of new users adding checklists to eBird. Maybe some were birding before but not contributing checklists to science. Undoubtedly, many are new birders too.

I have seen some local reviewers complaining about horribly inaccurate checklists from some of the newbies, but I have personally seen in my area that the new names are posting checklists that look legitimate. They have species you would expect to see in that habitat at this time of year. It has been really exciting to see new data pour in, especially to hotspots that I created a year or 2 ago or to hotspots where I had been posting most of the recent checklists. I am excited to see new checklists and new species at these spots. This provides more data for birders like me to understand what we are observing and more data for scientists to understand how ecology is changing.

As things shift back to normal, I hope that some of these new birders will continue contributing. I am sure that many will become as hooked on the activity as I have. I hope that heavily hiked areas will return to normal so that nature can recover, but maybe that a few of those new hikers will adventure out a little more often to appreciate what nature has to offer. Now is probably a more important time than ever to increase education about how to use the trails and “leave no trace”. If we can improve how well people do that, then the overall result of this disruptive time could be an improvement in the number of people who appreciate nature and observe it in ways that help conserve it.

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