How Listservs May Be Altering Notions of Early and Late

In the course of compiling sightings and analyzing them as part of my North American Birds (NAB) editing duties, I'm noticing that the migration phenology of my youth seems to unravel a little more with each passing year. The Spring and Fall columns for our Region have been littered with "record" earlies and lates in recent years. We've come to understand that arrival and departure dates  once considered "early" or "late" may now be the norm. What has changed?

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For many birders across North America, the return of Turkey Vultures marks the return of Spring. When the first reports begin coming in, eyes turn skyward.

There has been much discussion surrounding apparent changes in the timing of migrant arrivals and departures. One consistent discussion point is climate change and how birds may be responding to it. While it seems plausible to attribute record early and late dates to climate change (and we should continue to look for evidence of such), perhaps the real elephant in the room is observer effort or, more importantly, talented observer effort.

Birding has mushroomed in popularity over the past 2-3 decades and, not surprisingly, there has been a corresponding increase in the number of skilled birders combing the landscape. This collective increase in birding effort is hard to quantify, thus it is hard to draw solid conclusions about the cause/effect relationship between our cumulative time in the field and the body of observations that are modifying our perceptions about migration timing.

Another factor that probably can't be overlooked is the "game" aspect that is created when FOS (first of season) and FOY (first of year) birds can be reported in real time. Years ago, one would have to wait a month or two for the local Audubon newsletter to come out before they would know who saw the first of this or that. Nowadays, listservs allow us to share reports of early migrants almost as soon as we see them. In fact, many birders don't even wait to get home, they use cell phones to post the latest news from the field. When we received notification of new arrivals, do we sit home? No, we grab our bins and scope and join the party. Predictably, this response translates into numerous corroborating reports, where there would have been just one outlier a few decades ago. 

Listservs have clearly replaced the local Audubon chapter field notes or bird club newsletter as the place where we learn what others are seeing and have seen. In terms of overall population and number of birders, Oregon (where I live) is small potatoes. Had it been possible to create a "listserv" thirty years ago, I suspect we would have been challenged to drum up 50 subscribers statewide. Today, Oregon Birders Online (OBOL) enjoys a roster of over 800 subscribers. Beyond that, there at least a half a dozen vibrant sub-regional listservs that have sprouted up around the state. At least two of the more localized (non-statewide) listservs can now boast subscriber rolls that number into the hundreds.

This type of smorgasbord of reporting options likely exists in many states and Canadian provinces, allowing individual observers to choose a reporting funnel size that serves their particular needs. There are surely several folks who, like me, subscribe to a number of different listservs. Others use digest services like Jack Siler's birdingonthe.net or Sialia to monitor multiple lists, but avoid a daily deluge of e-mails. Perhaps you only want to know what is going on in your home county, or maybe you are interested in reports from a multi-state region. All of these options are available on today's birding listserv landscape.

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Along the Pacific Coast of North America, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, no species inspires "me too" reports like the Rufous Hummingbird. With a flash of rusty orange and a buzzy "zee-chuppity-chup" the males announce their arrival and the start of the spring migration season.

In every region there are favored harbinger birds. Their arrival is much-anticipated, as they signal an impending opening of migratory floodgates. In Oregon, two such birds are Rufous Hummingbird and Turkey Vulture. Each year, in late-Feb/early-March, one can bank on flurry of online reports as birders statewide trumpet local arrivals. Our new-found capacity for experiencing these widespread arrivals via listserv reports and then going out to our local patch to experience them firsthand, cements their timing in our minds. These days, most Oregon birders could probably tell you within a 4-5 day window when they expect to see their first Rufous Hummer each year.

In the past, there were always a few birders who kept detailed notes and understood migration phenology, but before comparative data points were readily available, widespread understanding of migration timing was not very fine-tuned. Being connected to one another by listservs and other social birding sites has refined and will continue to refine our recognition of what constitutes "early" and "late." It truly has become a game in a sense, complete with a subset of birders who are out there trying to create new benchmarks.

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