Saratoga County

Scientists on lookout for rusty blackbirds

Even if your bird-spotting skills are rusty, bird scientists would like your help looking for the ru
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Even if your bird-spotting skills are rusty, bird scientists would like your help looking for the rusty blackbird next week.

The National Audubon Society and Cornell University Lab of Ornithology want the public’s aid Tuesday through April 7 in looking for the rusty blackbird, a species whose numbers have been in steep decline for several decades.

Flocks of the birds pass through the Capital Region only on migration routes between the Southern swamps they inhabit in winter and northern boreal forests where they spend summer months. This time of year is when they’re most likely to be seen.

It’s critical they have places to rest and feed along the way, according to scientists, whose concern is that their numbers are declining because those habitats are disappearing.

The noisy blackbirds might be spotted in places like the Vischer Ferry Nature Preserve in Clifton Park or the state’s Five Rivers Environmental Education Center in Delmar, but could be seen in almost any local bog or wet forest.

“We have quite a few migratory birds that pass through here,” said Glenn Humphreys, an intern at the Five Rivers center.

According to the Cornell ornithology lab in Ithaca, rusty blackbird populations have suffered one of most staggering population declines of any bird in North America over the last 20 years.

“A better understanding of the rusty blackbird’s habitat requirements is key to conserving its remaining populations,” the center said in a statement. “Spring migration is an especially critical time.”

The species has gone from being described as almost universally common or abundant a century ago to one where even in the center of its range it is uncommon or rare, according to the Smithsonian National Zoo.

So rusty blackbirds are much less common than the red-wing blackbirds that are already seen returning to local marshes.

“It’s definitely a declining species,” said Rich Merritt, who works for the Audubon New York office in Albany and saw rusty blackbirds last week on a birding trip to Arkansas swamps. “I’m from the Adirondacks, and I used to see quite a few of them, but now there are very few.”

Dave Gibson of Ballston Lake, an experienced birdwatcher and the executive director of the Association for Protection of the Adirondacks in Niskayuna, said many migratory bird species are in decline around the world. He said he may participate in the rusty blackbird survey.

The goal is to determine where the birds are stopping and staying during their migration, said Patricia Leonard, a spokeswoman for the Cornell lab.

“There are many migratory birds that are in decline, mostly because of habitat loss,” Leonard said.

Identifying critical habitats could lead to their protection, she said.

Leonard said next week’s survey isn’t a count of the species as much as an effort to determine where rusty blackbirds are present and where they’re absent.

Participants in the survey are asked to note the date, time and location of the observations; flock size; general behavior such as flying, feeding or roosting; and the type of habitat they were in.

People participating are asked to send information they’ve collected to www.ebird.org, a Web-based database started in 2002.

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