Red winged black bird in Lurie Garden
Lurie Garden Red winged blackbird

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Walk With Walk: Nature Event

TNC scientist to talk climate, conservation and impact to traveling birds

Both fall and spring bird migrations give us a window into the often long, thousand-mile or more journeys of some of our favorite bird species. For the 7th year The Nature Conservancy’s Conservation Director Dr. Jeffery Walk, will host an hour-long walk through Chicago’s Lurie Gardens, 7:30 a.m. –  8:30 a.m.

Walk has previously led groups through the winding garden, a partial replication of some of the region’s most thriving prairies such as TNC’s own Indian Boundary Prairies just south of the city in Markham. There, with binoculars in hand, Walk has noted that the site that sits less than half a mile from the lake, is a favorite “rest and refuel” station for several species including the colorful red-winged blackbird, white-throated sparrows and rose-breasted grosbeaks – a Central and South American long-distance traveler with distinct berry coloring on its chest. Another favorite is the indigo bunting – a common but often-overlooked bird due to its secretive nature.

“The fortunate thing for birders in this region is the lakefront is a very special place for birds to rest,” said Walk. “Chicago is an amazing tapestry of natural areas -- like the Lurie Garden -- that are critical to the success of these birds’ travels and to their existence.”

This year, Walk intends to do a deep dive on not only the birds that attendees will see, but also the birds they won’t.  A recently-published book by Matt Williams, TNC Indiana Director of Conservation, “Endangered and Disappearing Birds of the Midwest” serves as a photo and text reference to help both scientists and observers understand why we aren’t seeing as many of our favorite birds in the region. For instance, while the overall number of Great Lakes Piping Plovers have increased, they are still one of the continent’s “most imperiled” shorebirds.

“This beautiful yet rare bird only had 75 pairs nest along the Great Lakes shores in 2016,” Williams said. “While the reasons for this are complex, the most obvious factor is habitat loss along the coasts – mainly to development and other shoreline infrastructure.”

Another familiar and colorful face is that of the red-headed woodpecker – also in steep decline in the Midwest. Their threats are many, including competition for nesting locations, collision with vehicles along their routes, and fewer of the open forests that these woodpeckers like due to less naturally-occurring wildfire in the region.

Walk and Williams also noted that climate change plays a role in the movement of some species. As noted in this week’s U.N. Climate report, every fraction of a degree of warming matters. And for certain species, a few degrees can alter a bird’s travel plans.

“We can see the effects of climate on these creatures which directly impacts the environment and even the economy.” Walk said. “Cues that birds use to ‘schedule’ their travel may no longer match natural events necessary for their survival and create a domino effect.  For example, birds that winter in the tropics, like the rose-breasted grosbeak, use daylength to time their migration.  But with earlier springs, leaf-out and the insect populations are well advanced by the time the birds arrive. 

“Many birds eat insects that are crop pests, so when birds do not arrive on time, it could have an effect on agriculture as well – an industry critical to the region,” said Williams. “Not only are these birds beautiful to observe, they are also an amazing indicator of the health of our planet. It tells us a lot as conservationists when we see a major decline in numbers of species that should be here but are not. It tells us there is work to be done to protect the lands and waters that they – and we – need to thrive.”

The walk will be held at 7:30 a.m. at Lurie Garden Friday, Oct. 12. The weather is slated to be brisk but sunny.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.