Map Monday: birds of a feather do flock together

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.

White pelican with some friendly Canada geese

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!

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18 Responses to Map Monday: birds of a feather do flock together

  1. December is marked here by visits to the northern greenery to view the return of the barn swallows.
    Sadly though, most of the green spaces are being used for housing, the swallows are at a loss and have taken to residing near the main roads on the outskirts of residential areas. Very sad.

  2. Roy McCarthy says:

    I suppose here in the British Isles it’s the Brent Geese who are familiar visitors. They’ve been recorded here in Jersey for at least 300 years and we regularly welcome 1,000 or so.

    When I arrived in Ireland and started athletics coaching, I re-introduced a bit of neglected throws coaching – shot putt, discus and so on. The first thing I needed to do was get a spade clear the throwing circles of inches of goose dung. Irishtown Stadium is a favourite destination for the Brents even though there’s lots of lovely seashore nearby 😦

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Brent Geese, eh, I’ll have to look them up. Sounds like you must have been a VERY keen athletics coach! Canada Geese aren’t too popular for their prolific droppings either, especially on golf courses.

  3. Jean says:

    I haven’t yet seen that hummingbird in our prairie neck of the woods. In Vancouver, one has to know of some faithful eagles roosting in their favourite treetop in the city. It’s great to see them. 🙂 I am becoming more bird alert in the past few yrs.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      No, I think the ruby-throated inhabits about 2/3 of the NA continent from the east coast, pretty well as the map indicates. They must be a domineering bird in the hummingbird world because within their region there are no other kinds of hummingbirds at all. My understanding is that other parts of the world, including the west coast, have more than one kind of hummingbird, just not the ruby-throated. Re the eagles, I don’t think there’s anything more majestic. Love them. Actually, I can think of a few others but I’ll run out of space! 😏

  4. I’m laughing at your “Why leave? They’re already in paradise” comment. Interesting maps, as always. When we lived to the south a few hours from here (in Vero Beach), our living room looked out onto a golf course, which made for great bird watching. Every winter that we were there, we’d wake up to one day only of flocks and flocks of Robins on a migration stop, before I assume heading even further south. It was only ever one day, so if one missed it that was it. Fascinating really. Thanks, Jane. – Marty

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Vero Beach, that’s where I had my very first sightings of pelicans flying low along the shoreline in formation! Wonderful part of the world. And huge flocks of migrating robins, wow! When we used to take our kids and then grandkids to Disney it was fun to see a few of them down there, but whole flocks! A few stay here, but they look pretty forlorn come hard winter. Definitely no worms that time of year, just some berries and lots of shivering. Hence my “No More Winters for Robby” story. Glad you’re enjoying the map stories, Marty.

  5. 🙂 A fascinating Monday read as always, here in the UK we have species that migrate to North Africa (can’t name them apart from swallows lol so you’ll just have to believe me 🙂 ) and I agree the vast distances are quite staggering.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, A.S. Bird migration from the UK and Europe didn’t pop out in my surface-scratching perusal, somewhat to my surprise. I think I’ll have to do a deeper dive, along with further exploration of some intriguing crane migration in the Himalayas. There’s lots of good bird stories to be found!

  6. Those “winged migrations” are absolutely amazing. (I bet you’ve seen the beautiful movie.) Always a thrill when the hummingbirds return. And in central Maine, they usually leave by my birthday in mid-September.

  7. We have a pair of Golden and two pair of Bald Eagles that are on the farm most all year. They are a beautiful sight to see unless they have their eyes on our baby calves but their moms are on high alert for them and the buzzards (which migrate with the first snow)!! That snow is headed here tomorrow with 4-8 inches according to the weathermen!!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Oh wow, Rita. I absolutely love watching eagles, but it’s one thing to watch them fly over you clasping a fish for their babies and another to watch them taking a dive for a calf. Yikes! But how cool to have both baldies and goldens. It doesn’t seem fair to you that we’re only supposed to get tons of rain from this approaching system while you may get 4-8” of snow! Maybe Mother Nature will change her mind. 😊

  8. LA says:

    Ok…why don’t pigeons migrate?

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