A flock of migrating birds mid-flight
Gandy's Beach Preserve Shorebirds rely on the beaches and marshes of Gandy's Beach. © Erika Nortemann/TNC

Newsletter

Q&A: Helping Birds in Rhode Island and Beyond

Scott Comings spent much of his childhood exploring Rhode Island’s Block Island, where he now lives and works. He studied ornithology and outdoor education in college and worked as a field researcher for the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center before joining The Nature Conservancy in 1997. He has been the Rhode Island associate state director since 2014.

TNC's Rhode Island Associate State Director, Scott Comings, holds a newly banded peregrine falcon.
Scott Comings TNC's Rhode Island Associate State Director, Scott Comings, holds a newly banded peregrine falcon. © Courtesy of Scott Comings
You’ve been a master bird bander for over 25 years. What kinds of birds have you banded?
I band about 3,000 a year—owls, falcons, rails, songbirds, you name it. I’ve been bitten by hundreds of species!
 
Has tracking technology changed since you started studying birds?
Some of the things that used to be considered science fiction, like satellite tags, are now providing real-time data on how birds are moving. When I started, we were still using radio collars and antennas!
 
In addition to banding and tagging, point counts are used to track birds. How does that work?
Researchers set up stations and record every bird seen and heard over a certain time period. When done repeatedly, we get a time series of what species are breeding or migrating through that area.

 

Tools of the Trade
Tools of the Trade Supplies for banding birds and collecting samples for the Delaware Bayshores neotropical migratory songbird study. Spring 2021. © Louis Mason / Louis Mason Photography
A red knot (Calidris canutus).
A red knot (Calidris canutus). TNC's Virginia Coast Reserve (VCR) is a key stopover site for migratory red knots. © Barry Truitt
Tools of the Trade Supplies for banding birds and collecting samples for the Delaware Bayshores neotropical migratory songbird study. Spring 2021. © Louis Mason / Louis Mason Photography
A red knot (Calidris canutus). TNC's Virginia Coast Reserve (VCR) is a key stopover site for migratory red knots. © Barry Truitt
 
How is all the tracking data used?
We take that information—sometimes decades of data—and then factor in other variables, like weather and habitat change, to build models that illustrate what’s happening to migratory birds’ habitats and flyways. Those models inform decisions that affect birds, such as placement of offshore wind turbines.
 
The research indicates that migratory birds are struggling. What are some of the threats they face?
Connectivity is a big one. Think about a neotropical songbird: A lot has to go right for a bird that weighs as little as a letter to migrate from Canada to Central America, for example. They have habitat loss and fragmentation of their wintering grounds, cowbirds parasitizing their nests on breeding grounds, and all kinds of obstacles, like light pollution and predators, in between.

 

A Prothonotary Warbler calls out to find his mate in early spring.
Birdsong A prothonotary warbler calls out to find his mate in early spring. © Gayla Loewen/TNC Photo Contest

Globally, climate change is causing the timing of migrations to shift. What effects are you seeing locally?
Block Island is an important stopover site in the fall, when birds switch from eating insects to fruit. But in recent years, the fruit has ripened and rotted before the birds arrive. We’re not sure what the long-term impacts are, but it’s certainly one more threat to an already imperiled group of species.

What is TNC doing to help?
The Conservancy protects the most important spots for birds and helps private landowners, governments, other nonprofits and businesses manage their properties
in ways that benefit our avian friends. The results will last for generations. I’ve already been able to help conserve properties that I walked on as a kid, and now my kids explore them. That’s what makes this work so special.


(Neophema chrysogaster) is a Critically Endangered migratory shorebird
ORANGE-BELLIED PARROT Neophema chrysogaster is a critically endangered migratory bird © JJ Harrison, Wikimedia Commons