World Migratory Bird Day celebrates extraordinary avian journeys, twice a year

Yellow warbler image via Canva Pro.

As the seasons change, they fly in their thousands over endless miles of land and sea. Somehow, despite the challenges, most migrating birds miraculously reach their destination. Occasionally, one or two are shown to have made a record-breaking flight, as their movements are increasingly tracked, through both sophisticated technology and more traditional methods.

World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD), which celebrates these amazing journeys, is an unusual celebration, taking place twice a year in the Americas, in honour of the biannual movements of migrating birds. This year, according to Environment for the Americas (EFTA), which organises the day each year, it will be observed on May 13 in Canada and the United States (when birds have arrived and settled down in North America); on October 14 it will be celebrated in the Caribbean, Mexico, and South and Central America, where they return for the winter months.

Created in 1993 by the Smithsonian Institution’s Migratory Bird Center and originally focused on the Western Hemisphere, WMBD expanded in 2018 by forming an alliance with two major “flyways,” thus encompassing the world. Since then, in addition to the Americas Flyway, there is the African-Eurasian Flyway, and the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Now that all are linked, they are able to address the many issues that migratory birds worldwide have in common. More discoveries are also emerging from ongoing research, including how migrating birds fuel themselves for the journey.

What exactly is a flyway? A highway of sorts, it is the route taken by birds migrating from breeding grounds to their winter quarters. There are four flyways in North America alone.

Wetlands International shared an illustration from Canada:

Nowadays, increasingly sophisticated technology tracks the movements of these birds, helping to inform scientists of changing migration patterns, and where and when they might be stopping off along the way to rest and refuel. Several digital tools and visualisations, including interactive maps, provide fascinating insights and important data.

The Motus Wildlife Tracking System is a growing network that uses automated radio satellite telemetry through stations set up across the Americas. It is now underway in the Caribbean as well, where BirdsCaribbean set up the first receiver stations in 2021. Already well established in North America, and some parts of South and Central America, Motus continues to expand. Citizen scientists and birders worldwide record their sightings on the eBird online portal, which has been able to generate a wealth of data on where the birds are, and when.

Bird banding is a less high-tech method of tracking individual birds and how far they travel. Birds caught in mist nets have a tiny coloured band attached to their legs and are released. Sometimes, a banded bird turns up in an unexpected place. Young conservationists continue to learn how to band birds, a practice that is over a century old.

The theme of this year’s WMBD, “Water: Sustaining Bird Life,” emphasises the importance of clean water in the birds’ lives, as well as the growing impact of drought and water pollution. According to EFTA, both the quality and the quantity of water are major concerns, with climate change increasing the length and frequency of drought periods throughout the region. Several large wetland areas that lie on the birds’ three major flyways, including Utah’s Great Salt Lake, the African Sahel’s Lake Chad, and Asia’s almost-extinct Aral Sea, among others, all critical habitats for thousands of migratory birds, are now drying up:

BirdLife, in both Africa and Europe, echoed the importance of wetlands for migratory birds. Drought is also a pressing concern for humans in the Caribbean. Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness recently announced a major increase in the island’s budget to improve water systems, urging residents to conserve water.

The WMBD experience varies from one region to another. In the Americas, brightly coloured warblers and songbirds gradually disappear from Caribbean forests and gardens, and are mostly gone by the end of April. They go to North America to begin their breeding cycle, heading back south in September. On some islands, certain species may arrive for the summer, having flown up from South America.

This young Cuban conservationist just banded a migratory warbler on its way further north:

The distance the birds fly largely depends on the species and the region. Some records have been broken in recent years, largely because it is becoming easier to track individual birds. One shorebird, the Bar-tailed Godwit, continues to impress, traveling 7,000 miles non-stop. In September 2021, one of this species, with a solar-powered tracking device fitted on its back, flew 8,100 miles from Alaska to Australia, without resting once — and this is a bird that does not glide or soar, but flaps its wings all the way. Another powerful shorebird, the Whimbrel, regularly flies from Canada, moving across the Caribbean to South America, an estimated 6,800 miles.

Migrating birds encounter a range of man-made hazards along the way. Tall buildings with large glass windows cause the demise of many groups of migrating birds, especially at night. This New York City organisation tweeted:

Birders celebrated the passing of new “lights out” legislation in the city:

Other potential dangers awaiting the migrating birds in the Caribbean include storms and hurricanes, marine and coastal pollution, human development on their stopping-off grounds, hunting (especially in the French Caribbean), and trapping (Cuba has a wild bird trade).

Each year, Environment for the Americas focuses on the life cycles of several migratory birds in the Americas, and some birding organisations even get poetic. Birds also inspire art throughout the region:

What can we humans do to help these birds on their way, and to ensure that the water they need is available? Here are some suggestions:

So when a new bird arrives in your American or Caribbean garden, celebrate it! It has flown a long way to be with you, and if you treat it well, it will come back to you at the same time next year.

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