November 21, 2013

Winter Migrants – the unseen migration

Boreal Songbird Initiative
With an earlier dusk and longer nights winter lends itself to sky gazing, even if from the car on the commute home. The moon and Orion seems to be always visible though come spring we may forget to look for Cygnus the swan. In the reverse late fall brings a dying of the light, withering plants, and departure of the summer songbirds. Most school children can tell you that “birds fly south in the winter” but there is more to the story. New England lies roughly between latitudes 44° degrees north (Bangor, ME) to 41° north (Providence, RI) literally slap dap in the middle of the Northern Hemisphere. This unique location makes New England a migratory stop over for both tropical birds heading north to breed in the summer and boreal birds heading south to lay over in the winter. Like the summer constellations these winter migrants often go unnoticed and most certainly unappreciated. 

The birds that make up New England’s winter migrants consist mainly of three groups: “winter ducks” that include ducks, grebes, and loons; “winter finches” including finches, sparrows, buntings, and larks; and “winter raptors” including some eagles, hawks, and owls

Winter migrants are also hiding in plain sight and include species that we see year round including such favorites as Black-capped chickadees, Blue jays, and American robins. Yet, these birds may in fact be northern birds wintering in our parks and back yards waiting to be seamlessly replaced by different individuals of the same species come spring. In simpler terms the Robin eating dried crab apples from your crab apple tree in February will fly north to northern Saskatchewan come March only to be replaced by a Robin currently in Virginia who will build it’s nest under your eave come summer. 

Whether bobbing quietly in the bays and ocean waters, picking seeds from frozen farm fields or hiding in plain sight the story of these winter migrants is no less incredible than those of their spring counterparts the warblers, bobolinks, and thrush. The winter migrants make a journey of thousands of miles from the boreal forests of northern Canada.

This deepening understanding of both spring and winter migrants is a reminder that “our” New England birds are in fact multi-national travelers involved in complex and ancient migrations. Their story confirms that conservation efforts must be made globally, that our understanding of even “common” birds is limited by our sedentary ways, and that watching a Chickadee take  a sunflower seed from your feeder is in fact bearing witness to a tiny snapshot in a worldly swept life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating! who knew some of these are NOT wintering over birds. Thanks.

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is an educator, bird watcher, and writer fascinated by the intersections of place, people, nature, and culture. He works for Mass Audubon and lives in the heart of Massachusetts. For questions or comments please contact:

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