Bird Lady Blog

March 3, 2012

Migration – A Hazardous Journey


August and September begin the migration period for many of our Munds Park spring and summer birds.  It is a time when birders get excited about the chance to see new and unusual species moving south, yet it is a scary and dangerous time for the birds themselves.  Bad weather, predators, crashes into vehicles, lights, and skyscrapers, exhaustion, and most significantly, the lack of suitable habitat for rest periods, all add up to make the journey a treacherous one.

Birders across our state  – from Lake Havasu, Parker, Rio Rico, Tempe, Glendale and Phoenix – are all reporting sightings of migrating birds, including our summer species of  Black-Headed Grosbeak, Western Tanager, Lesser Goldfinch, and Red-Faced Warbler.

One of my favorite movies is Winged Migration.  This documentary was filmed over the course of four years on seven continents and provides amazing footage of birds migrating over land and sea.  The scenery is beautiful and expansive, but more importantly the movie provides real-life examples of birds, many of them waterfowl, flying thousands of miles, wing-beat after wing-beat, to their wintering home.  If you haven’t seen it, it is worth renting and watching, especially if you have school-age children or grandchildren to share it with.

So where do our birds go for the winter?  The American Robin may hang around up to the dead of winter as long as their primary winter food source of fruit remains abundant.  In the spring Robins switch to earthworms and insects as their primary food source.  When they do migrate from North America, American Robins move into Mexico and South America.  A close relative of the American Robin is the Rufous-Backed Robin, which rarely enters the U.S. from Mexico.  However, my mother and I spotted one during a trip to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior, AZ, a couple of winters ago.  Being on the U of A’s BIRDGW05 Listserv was helpful, because I had received notices of the sighting from other birders.  We knew where to look as a start to finding the Rufous-Backed Robin, which was a lifer for me and her.

Western Bluebirds will also migrate, and sometimes not that far into lower elevations.  For example, for more than one winter in Phoenix we’ve had Western Bluebirds at the Arizona Country Club.  We have no way of knowing if they are Munds Park birds, but we can imagine that perhaps they are.

What about Turkey Vultures?  These are the large, black birds with a wing-span of five to six feet that you see soaring often just east of the intersection of Pinewood Boulevard and I-17.  On September 3rd, before writing this article and finishing up a round of golf, we saw more than a dozen Turkey Vultures circling unusually high in the air.  This flock of Vultures circling within a thermal is called a “kettle.” A kettle will ride the thermal high until it begins to falter, then they move on seeking the next thermal.  By using thermals and moving from one to the next, Turkey Vultures save energy and very rarely have to flap their wings, instead just gliding to cross vast distances.  In Phoenix, Turkey Vultures are typically spring, summer and early fall residents.  For the winter they have migrated even further south into Mexico, but in many of the Southern states, such as Florida, Turkey Vultures are year-round residents.

A wonderful place to view raptor migration is at the Grand Canyon during the months of September and October.  HawkWatch International used to have teams of scientific observers counting hawks, falcons, and eagles from two spots – Lipin Point and Yaki Point.  However, this non-profit has taken some funding hits in recent years and, as a result, has closed a couple of their fall migration projects.  The Grand Canyon project no longer is a HawkWatch International site, but of course birds are still migrating through.  A great day trip or overnight adventure is from Munds Park to the Grand Canyon to stake out one of these locations and watch the raptors soar across the Canyon as they migrate south.  I saw my first Peregrine Falcon at eye-level this way, and the whole experience is wonderful.  Try to pick a warm and not-too-windy fall day, pack a lunch, a folding chair, your binoculars, a field guide, and water, and enjoy the day seeing how many raptors you can identify.

Some of us humans are beginning the migration back to our winter homes.  We pack our cars, fill up with gas, settle into our comfortable leather seats, put on satellite radio, take along water and stop for a cup of coffee or shake or burger along the way.  Think of the birds:  tiny things beating their wings thousands of times, landing quite exhausted in your yard or a park or pond, and then having to seek water, food, and a safe place to sleep.  No Holiday Inn with complimentary continental breakfasts for them.  A hazardous journey indeed.

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