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Colin Rees Ornithology and Climate Change

By Jon Friedman


In wildness is the preservation of the world - Thoreau




Introduction – From the Beginning

Regular readers of my articles, particularly in recent years, have come to understand that I see informing them of educational information, besides basic bird identification and behavior, is part of my objective. I have been writing about birds from various viewpoints and think it important to present material from a historical perspective, and in doing so have written about localized bird history and viewpoints from important past ornithologists and naturalists, such as Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John James Audubon, Roger Tory Peterson, Alexander Skutch, E.O. Wilson and others. I believe in the axiom “more is better” (although not in all cases) and following this line of thinking, it only makes sense to me that “seeing the whole picture” is essential to gaining more knowledge about birds. Readers have probably noticed that the subject of climate change occurs in several articles. It seems, other than the current political administration filled with climate deniers, the overwhelming majority of the public and 99+% of the world’s scientists who have studied the subject are in agreement that climate change has been underway for many years now and with each passing year we are experiencing more of its devastating effects. Scientists study leading indicator species to understand this process of the changing climate and accurately predict and inform the world of what is to come. Studying and understanding the life cycles of birds, the foods and habitats they depend upon, their behaviors, and the adaptations they need to make in order to survive and/or thrive are definitely a part of this important undertaking.


Meeting Colin Rees

I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to meet Colin Rees, a British birder and environmentalist who has spent many years living and working in the U.S., but is also well traveled to the far-flung places of the world. He is among the leading edge of ornithologists/naturalists today who are dedicated to informing the scientific community and the nature loving public of the effects he and his colleagues are observing and documenting. I must say, at this point, that his son, Ian, who joined the staff of The Wild Bird Store last year, arranged my meeting Colin. We initially met Ian when he brought his very accomplished drawings and paintings to us. Not only do we exhibit his artworks (for sale), but we hired him to be part of our team. It was a good decision. However, it was only relatively recently that he informed us about his father and invited us to meet him when he was planning to visit Ian and do some birding in our area. It was a lunchtime meeting that lasted almost three hours, and I came away anxious to read some of his published books. Had I read all the material I could have before meeting him, I would have had more, and more specific, questions to put to him. However, I realized, that the nature lovers who do read my articles would enjoy his writing and the information he so well presents. Among the numerous blurbs and endorsements from luminaries in the field, several have specifically commented on his “poetic” writing. Like the best poetry has to offer, Colin’s writing flows easily onto the page. He writes in a direct and personal style, easy to understand. His descriptions of birds, their habitats and lives remind me of the word “painterly.” He gives the reader a complete, colorful, descriptive and detailed view in an economical and concise manner.


Personal History

Colin Rees has led a colorful and eventful life traveling as a birder, environmentalist, and global biodiversity specialist for the World Bank. He has visited and observed nature in numerous countries, researching and writing scientific papers and books on biodiversity conservation he found in those locations. Among his other books are the definitive Birds of the Philippines, The Philippines: A Natural History, and A History of Cornish Ornithology: The Path to Conservation. He heads the Maryland Bird Conservation Partnership Steering Committee and the Long-range Planning Committee of the Maryland Ornithological Society. He is a faculty member in the Zoology Department at the University of Maryland. He lives on a creek in Annapolis with his wife Valerie.



Birds of a Feather

The Wild Bird Store will likely have a limited supply of two of his most recent books. Birds of a Feather, published in 2014 by Matador Publishing in Britain, is subtitled “Seasonal Changes on both sides of the Atlantic.” His co-author is Derek Thomas, his lifetime friend and major birding partner. Ian’s beautiful and accurate drawings of birds illustrated the pages. The premise of this book is that the two authors, being ornithologists and gifted writers, describe the changing of the seasons over a year’s period of time from specific locations on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. While they do not strictly limit themselves to just a single specific location to create their “nature reports”, Colin writes primarily about observances close to his home – the greater Chesapeake Bay area and the surrounding Mid-Atlantic States. Derek reports from the Welsh countryside and coastline. Together they provide a full, month-by-month account of their birding year, commenting upon nature’s beauty, awe and wonder as well as what they see, hear and learn regarding how radically the changing climate is affecting the lives of birds. It is formatted like a diary, with entries dated by the day or week. I found it very readable, educational and enjoyable. Only a small quantity of this title will be available, so if you are interested in obtaining a copy please discuss reserving a copy with the store staff.


Praise for

“Birds of a Feather is a poignant and moving reminder of how experiences of wildlife can grip the human soul and linger in our memories,” writes Stephanie Hilborne, Chief Executive, The Wildlife Trusts.

“This book will be a great read for birders from either side of the Atlantic”, Mike Parr, Vice President, American Bird Conservancy.

“Birds of a Feather” engages us through the superior powers of observation and charming prose…” Frank Gill, Vice President, Science, National Audubon Society


Nature’s Calendar

Colin’s newest book is titled, Nature’s Calendar: A Year in the Life of a Wildlife Sanctuary. Published in 2019 in the U.S. by Johns Hopkins University Press in Baltimore, the format of this book somewhat models itself like Birds of a Feather as it similarly assigns each chapter to a specific month. The action takes place in the northern Chesapeake Bay region of southern Maryland’s Patuxent River, specifically the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary. In this absorbing narrative, Rees explains the secrets and wonders of Jug’s Bay mercurial natural world as he explores and explains avian migration, the year round ecology of the cycles of nature, the interconnectedness of the totality of the freshwater tidal wetland. All readers will delight in Rees’s amazing observations, insights, intimate details and fascinating profiles of lives lived in this dynamic and delicate ecosystem.


The forward to the book, written by Rick Anthony, a naturalist well familiar with the area, states: “While Colin Rees paints with a broad brush, the details are aplenty…He portrays a world of remarkable complexity and beauty…The reader will have no problem in appreciating the increasing impacts of climate change on the wetlands and their supportive infrastructure. Consequently, what is revealed at Jug Bay can be scaled up to state and national levels and is an invitation for us to take action, although challenging, to help preserve and protect these wetlands. By combining science with poetry and luminous prose, this book offers a new world to be entered, enjoyed, and to feel passionate about”.


Praise for


"Nature's Calendar provides a snapshot of a year in Jug Bay, a tidal freshwater wetland on the Patuxent River. Intensely researched, Rees's book weaves together historical notes, literary musings, and notable weather events to provide a fascinating look into a world most of us are not patient enough to observe."—Jennifer Raulin, Department at the University of Maryland.


The author has come to know a special corner of the earth. In elegant prose, he reveals the hidden lives of sparrows and ducks, of beeches and winterberries, of shrews and foxes."—Bruce M. Beehler, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, author of Birds of Maryland, Delaware, & the District of Columbia.


How it Began

At our meeting, I explained that over the years many people have asked me how it is I became interested in birds and birding. Because of hearing this question being repeated multiple times

year after year, I wrote an article, Becoming a Birder, which can be found in the archive. I found Colin Rees to be a very interesting, experienced birder and researcher and could not resist putting this same question to him. He furnished me with this answer.



My Becoming a Birdwatcher and My Debt


Many times when I restock the bird feeders, I recall the time when I did so with my mother. We would knead the dripping saved from cooking with seed, and gently paste a cake into small flowerpots. These would be inverted and suspended from a suitable pole or tree branch. Because the suet was never rendered, the practice ended with the coming of summer. But she did much more. I was 10 when we watched a BBC Children’s Hour program on birds and the making of a bird table. She encouraged me to construct one, and though crude by today’s standards, it won my mother’s approval. We positioned it well, for within a day I was able to count 12 species. From then on I was hooked. My every waking hour was absorbed with birds, and I spent days exploring the Vale of Glamorgan in my native Wales. I kept a diary, deemed by my headmaster to be “of a particular style”, wrote articles for the school magazine, and gave bird lectures to my classmates. They called me Birdie Rees, a name I secretly enjoyed. I read bird books voraciously (often at the expense of schoolwork), raced around the countryside with schoolmates, attended meetings and field trips of the Cardiff Naturalist’s Society, and joined many bird organizations. I purchased my first up-market binoculars and sat sweltering in hides to record the private life of many a bird.


Since those early days, as my sons like to remind me, I’ve had the privilege of traveling the world in the company of birders and naturalists, and been able to lead a life dedicated to conservation. Flamingoes swirling around the shores of Lake Nakuru in Kenya, cranes alighting in the wetlands of India and China, and the Philippine Eagle gliding over the forest of Mindanao are but a few moments crowding my mind. None of them, however, quite compares to that first magical moment when enchantment and realization combined so happily around that first bird table. I will forever be grateful for my mother’s gentle encouragement.


The following is from a series of recent essays titled The Future of Ornithology. This excerpt is from Part II. The series explores recent advances in our understanding of birdlife in the full annual life cycle, the impact of climate change, and actions needed for the conservation of avifauna.

Beyond breeding biology: advances in understanding birds over the full annual cycle.

About 4,000 species of birds are regular migrants – some 40 per cent of the world’s total. In temperate zones, such as the US, about 250 species (27 percent) migrate – especially insect-eaters that are denied sufficient food during winter. Yet most studies on these migrants have focused on the months spent at breeding areas at the expense of knowing what birds do outside the breeding season -- all the more poignant given that most mortality occurs during that period and where conservation efforts remain germinative.

Happily, ornithologists are making advances in understanding birds over their full annual cycle as a result of long-term datasets now being mobilized from the tropical regions and major technological advances, such as geolocators. Previously, surveys, banding exercises, and isotope studies revealed a partial appreciation of species-level migration routes and wintering locations. Now technical means provide daily accounts about where and how fast an individual bird travels. Such information is being increasingly combined with physiological studies to test and refine theoretical models of maximum flight ranges based on flight costs and fuel storage. Also, as some individual birds occupy more than one discrete wintering area, a more critical examination of how we define and differentiate between stopover and wintering ranges is underway.

Climate change

Given that many species in the continental US are advancing their range northwards in response to warmer temperatures, statistical models linking species occurrence to climate are being used to predict future changes in distribution. In North America, 177 of 305 species of birds tracked have shifted their centers of abundance during winter northward by 35 miles on average as compared to 40 years ago. Equally, the marathon flights undertaken by birds to spring breeding grounds are turning into even more epic journeys (the length of some migrations could increase, in Europe by as much as 250 miles).

Gary Langham of the National Audubon Society and colleagues at the Cornell Laboratory for Ornithology have assessed geographic range shifts for 588 North American bird species during both the breeding and non-breeding seasons under a range of future carbon emission scenarios to the end of the century. They have shown that 314 species (53%) are projected to lose more than half of their current geographic range. For 126 species, loss occurs without associated range expansion, while for 188 species, loss is coupled with the potential to colonize new replacement range. Very significantly, they found only weak relationships between projected climate sensitivities and existing conservation prioritizations: species responses were not clearly related to habitat affinities, migration strategies, or climate change scenarios. Accordingly, they urge that climate sensitivity be included in current conservation planning and that adaptive management strategies be developed to accommodate shrinking and shifting geographic ranges. The persistence of many North American birds will depend on their ability to colonize climatically suitable areas outside of current ranges and management actions that focus on climate adaptation. Of note, the British Trust for Ornithology is developing a model to predict likely changes in species population size, rather than simply distribution, as it is abundance and population trends that drive much conservation listing and prioritization of actions.

Some of the most interesting studies are investigating the timing of migration and exploring the implications for how migratory birds may adjust to climate change. Geolocators are revealing remarkable constancy in migration timing within species and individuals: birds that have been tracked repeatedly for up to three years appear to time their migrations almost identically each year. These findings suggest that the timing of migration may be more ‘hard-wired’ than previously suspected, and birds may not be able to make facultative adjustments to changing climates. If so, as David Altshuler and his co-workers suggest, we should expect population-level consequences of phenological mismatches between birds and their resources before selection can act to shift endogenous migration programming.

Advances in understanding birds over their entire annual cycle now extend beyond Palearctic-African and Nearctic-Neotropical migrants to include residents of these tropical regions. Much of the variation in fecundity and survival in tropical communities is driven by climate. Thus, since climate change scenarios predict decreases in precipitation for many parts of the tropics, considerable reshuffling of tropical bird communities is anticipated in coming years.

Conservation actions

Conservation is perhaps the ultimate multidisciplinary activity. It mobilizes the disciplines of population dynamics, systematics and molecular biology, migration, ecological adaptation, physiology, and behavior, in support of conserving birds and their habitats. But to be effective, it must bring the most rigorous scientific analysis to bear on issues and present findings in a clearly understandable form that is relevant to decision-making. As the latter aspect increasingly engages political and socio-economic domains and civil society, efforts are being directed at establishing partnerships and gaining ownership for actions to be prioritized, funded, and implemented to address development pressures.

Many species of North American and European birds consist of distinct eastern and western populations that appear to occupy different wintering areas and use different migratory routes. Work on avian habitat use in recipient tropical countries has helped inform habitat restoration programs, Important Bird Area designations or listings, and management of productive landscapes, such as coffee plantations. However, major gaps remain in applying research to on-the-ground conservation. In combination, long-term breeding season monitoring, new geolocator data, and multiple-locus DNA analysis should help determine which population declines in North America and Europe may be attributed to habitat loss or other disturbance on wintering grounds, along migratory routes or on breeding ranges. With such insights, conservation actions can be targeted at regions for more effective protection of migratory birds.

Many attempts are being taken at the national, regional, and state levels to mainstream avian conservation. Bird breeding atlases have been prepared and updated, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is supporting bird conservation initiatives in a number of states, and national and local conservation organizations are funding a broadening array of conservation projects. In Maryland, the State Wild Action Plan (SWAP), revised in 2015, provides an appreciation of Maryland’s natural environment and its avifauna, connects scientific knowledge about species and habitats with known threats, and describes conservation actions to enhance good stewardship of the state’s natural assets—and thereby the protection of bird species—over the next decade. A final section of SWAP includes an action plan and describes the role of the Maryland Bird Conservation Partnership as a long-term vehicle for the conservation of birdlife in Maryland.

In parallel, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has developed an initiative entitled Maryland’s Green Infrastructure, a mapped network of large blocks of intact forest and wetlands, linked together by linear features such as forested stream valleys, ridgelines, or other natural areas, called “corridors or habitat highways.” The approach, based on principles of landscape ecology and conservation biology, provides an ecological network map (GreenPrint) which uses satellite imagery to characterize land cover, and has Geographic Information System (GIS) data on roads, streams, wetlands and other resource features, and links to biological databases. Non-natural gaps were identified as potential candidates for restoration activities.

The DNR Natural Heritage Program’s Biodiversity Conservation Network (BioNet), has prioritized ecologically significant areas for the conservation of Species of Greatest Conservation Need, integrated its numerous “focal area” maps into a single map called Targeted Ecological Areas (TEAs). These have been incorporated into the GreenPrint map product. GreenPrint also assists state programs in working together by offering a more comprehensive picture of areas important to DNR as a whole.

Such a process has taken many forms in other states, but all have faced the practical application of the next step: saving lands and waterways through targeted acquisitions, easements, and other interventions. Land conservation programs have been enacted, including agricultural preservation, private conservation easements, and regulations conserving wetlands and shorelines. However, they are piecemeal approaches, and much of North America’s and Maryland’s green infrastructure currently remains unprotected.

Not long ago, streaming flocks of waterfowl often darkened the skies over the Chesapeake Bay as swans, geese, and ducks filled the air with haunting music. Shorebirds swarmed over mudflats. In forests, songsters announced their spring arrival. They still come, but their numbers are greatly diminished. Such spectacles may soon only remain in the memories of the elderly. What will our grandchildren say if these treasures are no more, and we leave them a world without flight and song? We have the tools. What is needed is concerted action. Dedicating ourselves to mobilizing civil society to help support conservation actions at personal and community levels. And, also dedicating ourselves to scale up gains on the ground so they may be realized at state and country levels.

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