The other day, while out for a solitary, masked walk as per our new provincial Orange Level COVID rules, I stopped to watch several mallard duck families by the shore of our river, paddling around as if they had all the time in the world. Seeing all these ducks, along with flocks of Canada geese in transit on the river, made me wonder precisely where they’re all headed … once they realize it’s nearly December and time to get out of here.
So this week I’m going to share my surface-scratching exploration of bird migration routes. Of course, not all birds migrate. Several of our local bird species stay all winter, often visiting our feeders. This includes black-capped chickadees, a few finches, downy and hairy woodpeckers, mourning doves, cardinals, nuthatches, not to mention crows and gulls. The lucky parts of the world that are blessed with the most varied and colourful of birds, like southern Africa and all tropical and sub-tropical forests, don’t lose any of their birds to migration. Why would those birds leave? They’re already in paradise.
In the northern hemisphere many, many species of birds breed in the north, particularly in the vast boreal forest and tundra regions (where there are lots of bugs and berries to feast on for the short period of time called summer) and then migrate to their preferred warm-weather wintering grounds to wait out our cold winters. These migration routes are both a mystery and a miracle of nature. For millennia now, literally billions of birds have migrated every year. Somehow they know where they want to go, how to get there, and how to prepare for and successfully complete what are often extraordinarily challenging distances.
Let’s take a look. [You can click on any map to get more details. Each accompanying link provides further information about the map.]
Migrating from the Arctic to everywhere.
Birds that summer in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska migrate to all corners of the earth. This map highlights the following birds:
1) Northern Wheatear to Africa
2) Bluethroat to southern Asia
3) Eastern Yellow Wagtail to Indonesia
4) Dunlin to Japan
5) Wandering Tattler to Polynesia
6) Bar-tailed Godwit to New Zealand
7) Arctic Tern to Antarctica
8) Sandhill Crane to western United States
9) Brant to western Mexico
10) Smith’s Longspur to central United States
11) American Golden Plover to southern South America
12) Tundra Swan to Chesapeake Bay in eastern North America
13) Semipalmated Sandpiper to northeastern South America.
At least 40% of the hundreds of thousands of Semipalmated Sandpipers en route from the Arctic to South America stop in New Brunswick, along the Bay of Fundy shore at Dorchester. A few hundred thousand at a time spend a few days eating mud crabs when the tides out and then resting and digesting on the shoreline, all the time keeping a lookout for opportunistic local peregrine falcons. They spend their time here doubling their weight before flying directly to their final destination. It’s an amazing sight.
Bar-tailed Godwit breaks record for speed on long migration route.
Just this fall a bar-tailed godwit broke the world record for non-stop bird flight, with an epic 7,500-mile journey from Alaska to New Zealand. The bird, which was tracked by a satellite tag scientists had affixed to its back, arrived in New Zealand 11 days after setting off from Alaska, without pausing for food or drink.
The Middle East is a busy migration corridor for birds heading in all directions.
Did you ever wonder where all our Canada Geese disappear to in the winter (well, except for all of those who don’t go anywhere)? I’m guessing Virginia isn’t too happy with the answer!
Ruby-throated hummingbirds’ magical annual appearance and disappearance.
For those of you who live where there’s more than one kind of hummingbird, you’ll have to humour the rest of us. We only have our beloved ruby-throated sweeties, but we’re not complaining. I don’t know about others in this ruby-throated territory, but it always amazes me how they always reappear at our house sometime in late April or early May and head straight for where our hummingbird feeder usually hangs once they arrive, hovering in place and tilting their heads as if to ask, “OK, where is it?” They disappear just as quickly as they come, sometime in September every year. Now that I’ve found this map I can see that they know their schedule very well!
Where do our mallard ducks go in winter?
This map shows why our resident ducks are in no hurry to leave; they don’t have to go far at all. If you look very closely you’ll see that the coast of Maine and the Bay of Fundy coast of SW New Brunswick are coloured as “year round”. They just head down the road for 100-150 kms or so and they have all the open water and food they could ask for. Perfect.
Where do our bald eagles go in winter?
I found this map very interesting. The answer is: nowhere, we’re in year-round eagle territory! In fact, our eagles along the St. John River (the Wolastoq) usually head down the “road” to the coast where there’s open water, since our river freezes solid. But they don’t go far and they’re back to start breeding as soon as the river opens up. Look at all the splotches of purple all around the continent, indicating pockets of year-round bald eagle habitats.
The pelicans of Saskatchewan.
I don’t know about you, but I never expected to see pelicans hanging out along the Saskatchewan River, right in the middle of downtown Saskatoon, a part of the totally landlocked Prairies. But there they were. “Well, of course,” said the locals. My experience with pelicans had been watching them fly low in formation along the coast in Florida while I sat on the beach. It turns out that the white pelican has quite a different migratory map from the brown pelican that frequents the southern U.S. The brown pelicans are year-round residents of their local habitat, whereas the white pelicans are migrators. Lucky Saskatchewan folks. What a treat.
Migrating strategies of different birds.
As I said at the beginning, bird migration is one of the miracles and mysteries of nature. Birds need to optimise their migration routes, minimise how much energy they need to use en route and maximise their likelihood of reaching their destination safely. This infographic illustrates some different distances, strategies, and body shapes of some representative birds. The linked article, by Nigel Hawtin, explains some of the choices made.
Three bird species that lead the pack in migratory distance flown. I stand in awe!
There is so much to learn about the birds around us. I encourage you to google your hearts out to learn more about the birds in your ‘hood and others you are most fascinated with. What better way to pass time during lockdown?!
P.S. I just took my own advice. Googled “herons New Brunswick migration” and immediately found this map tracking the migration route of one of our most mesmerizing summer visitors (and Harper, just to be clear, is the name of the heron being tracked, not the politician). Our herons are true snow birds, and they don’t get stopped at the border or have to worry about COVID!