A Migration Celebration
By Jeff Sayre
Some of you have undoubtably noticed my lack of presence over the past several weeks on the various Stream channels I participate in throughout the day. Whereas my cessation of postings on Google Plus and Twitter might be a relief to some of you, there is a logical reason that I’ve gone missing — I have turned my thoughts and gaze outwards to the physical world, shifting my focus away from the virtual world of tech startups and online social connections.
Why on Earth would I do this? It is spring migration!
The past several weeks, my wife April and I have been taking in the spectacle of animal migration — primarily birds. We’ve done this together each year for more than two decades. We are birders and proud of it!
A Great Nature Event
At this time of year in the eastern US, there is a free great nature event that anyone with a pair of eyes or even ears can experience. It is the time of year when part of the tropics returns to your backyard — with birds passing through on their way to prime breeding grounds further north. Literally billions of migrating birds make a dangerous, arduous journey from their wintering grounds, primarily in Central or South America, to their breeding grounds in North America (north of Mexico).
When thinking about the spectacle of mass animal migration many people may think of the massive movement of large ungulates on the Serengeti plains, or the throngs of North American Caribou on the Arctic tundra, or even the Humpback Whales’ long journey from wintering to breeding grounds. Yet the biennial migration of neotropical birds between the American continents may be the largest, if not greatest, mass animal migration on Earth. More than 250 species of birds are considered neotropical migrants. From hawks, to shorebirds, to waterfowl, to songbirds, these avian pilgrims make a twice-a-year journey from wintering grounds to breeding grounds and back.
The sheer number of migrating neotropical birds is astounding. It is estimated that approximately 5 billion birds migrate from the subtropics and tropics each spring to the United States and Canada. Even with the high mortality rates of adult birds during spring migration and while on breeding territory, the number of birds making the southward journey in the fall is probably greater as the adult birds are joined by juveniles.
Although you can experience bird migration in the western and central parts of the United States, if you live in the eastern third of the country (east of the Mississippi River), the number and diversity of migrating terrestrial-based bird species is significantly greater. Furthermore there are some gems of the avian world that are best seen in their eastern migratory flyways — primarily the group of birds generally called the New World wood-warblers as many of them require some degree of forest habitat for breeding.
A Celebration of Migration
April and I have traveled all over North America and several other continents to study birds. But this time of year, we do not venture too far from our home as we let the birds do the traveling to visit with us. Over the past several years, we have been spending more and more of the spring migration time in northwest Ohio in what is becoming known as the Warbler Capital of the World. We spend much of our time in and around the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, a world-renowned migrant trap: a place where, if conditions are right, large numbers and a great diversity of neotropical migrants may stopover on their journey north.
The past three years we have participated in a new birding festival known as The Biggest Week in American Birding. It is a celebration of migration, a wonderful place to see some of the jewels of the avian world, interact with birders from around the world, and meet people of all skill and interest levels. Literally thousands of birders flock to this location each year to take in the experience.
Beyond The Count
Although we do not keep year lists or even a life list anymore — a tally of the total bird species we have seen over a given time period and/or at a given geographic location — I did tally up the species we encountered during our most recent Biggest Week sojourn. We saw or heard a total of 154 species of birds — some of them were year-round residents and thus non-migratory species.
Whereas to hardcore, consummate birders that number may seem a little low given that over 230+ species were theoretically possible, to us the list, the tally, is not important. Once we hit 1000 bird species on our life list, we grew tired of chasing a number. We learned that what brought the most joy and happiness to our natural wanderings was getting to know a species better, getting to truly understand its behavior and the ecological niches on which it depends. That requires studying a bird well, observing it whenever you have the opportunity. It also requires getting to know its habitat — the plants, the prey, the biogeographic makeup of its niche. Thus finding rare birds is still fun, but what provides us with greater insight is the time we spend with species that we have seen many times before.
Although we keep field notes from each of our major trips and could come up with a total life list, we no longer enter any of our data into a birding database. Now, after two decades plus of tropical travel, we do not have a concrete count at where we stand — although I have a relatively good idea at where our life list probably stands.
Birding’s Cool And Birders Rock!
At The Biggest Week festival, we attended a keynote by world-renowned bird expert, naturalist, and field guide series author and editor Kenn Kaufman, who made a powerful, impassioned plea for the need to rebrand the activity of birding. I’ll attempt to encapsulate the essence of his speech in this section.
Kenn remarked that the old-school view of birdwatchers as dweebs or nerds is passé. Birders come from diverse professional and personal backgrounds. From lawyers and doctors, to corporate executives and military Generals, to past Presidents of the United States and renowned conservationists, to scientists and school children of all ages, birders and the activity of birding are cool.
Birding is growing in popularity. This is a positive trend as there are real-world political, economic, and environmental consequences of humans gaining a better insight into and deepening their appreciation of the larger ecological connections that power our ecosphere.
Whereas avocations like running, tennis, golf, and even NASCAR may provide an important respite to participants, their benefit to the ecosphere is nil — in some cases these pursuits actually have a net-negative to the overall health of the planet. However pursuits such as birding that help participants reconnect to the natural world can accrue net-positives for the Earth over time. Birders’ activities can even provide useful scientific data for monitoring species and ecosystem health.
The Wilder Side of Me
Although I spend much of my professional time thinking about and working on the issue of the technological transformation of society and our world, I lead a double life. These days my vocation is InterWeb technologist and technological futurist, yet my avocations are naturalist and ecologist. But in the past, these roles have been reversed.
If you’re interested in learning more, please read my recent post, The Wilder Side of Me.