The Phenomenon of Bird Migration

March 17, 2017

By Bettina Abe

The Phenomenon of Bird Migration

It’s hard to believe that spring is around the corner with a foot of snow in our yards. Stepping outside early on a winter morning as the warming sun rises, one hears birds calling like mourning doves, blue jays, cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees, crows, and titmice. These species keep us company even on the coldest days. Many ducks migrate south in the late fall and spend a few weeks on the ponds in Acton, such as buffleheads, blacks, and goldeneyes. These same species can be seen on Nagog Pond during the months of March and April on their return trip north.

How can one attempt to write just a bit about bird migration, a topic which ornithologists devote their careers to? This article will pose more questions than answers. Nevertheless, hobby birders are fascinated by tidbits of information, adding to our petite knowledge bases. We await the Massachusetts Audubon Christmas Bird Count and the annual spring migration bird walks with relish, in hopes of adding someone new to our “life lists.” We stock our feeders and scan the skies for both the familiar and the unusual visitors to our fields, ponds, forests and backyards. Though ornithologists do know a great deal about the phenomenon of bird migration, they continue to learn more. In this time of climate change, bird behavior patterns alter and numbers dwindle. Those who have indulged in the birding hobby for a while will smile as they recall when first they became interested in feathered friends; perhaps as a child, but for many, as adults. It’s hard to say what tipped us off. An article? A birder friend? For me it was the day a flock of cedar waxwings landed in my crabapple tree one February. I grabbed the bird book and proudly identified them. I caught the birding fever about the time my kids were avid Pokemon and Beanie Baby collectors.

The more one learns about the extreme athletic feat of migration, the more one can marvel at these remarkable animals. How do they possibly know the way? How fast do they fly? What routes do they take? How is it possible a ruby-throated hummingbird can fly across the Gulf of Mexico? What about storms and reduced visibility? Predators and planes? Drones and wind turbines? Skyscrapers? Pick up any field guide to North American birds such as Sibley, Peterson, National Geographic, National Audubon or Stokes. Next to each species will be a colored map indicating where each spends the seasons. An excellent resource is the Massachusetts Wildlife magazine, published quarterly by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife. Taking up birding can lead one to venture into the great outdoors and onto Acton conservation land (, taking one’s mind off of politics or other stressful aspects of life. Acton Recreation offers a wonderful birding class each spring.

You may notice that the red wing blackbirds have already returned from their sojourns in the south. Song sparrows were trilling a week ago along Ft. Pond Brook before our recent March snows. Though some bluebirds do winter over here in Acton, many more will return from the south. The months of April and May are when songbirds come back in droves from Florida, Mexico, Central and South America; you can also see spectacular species like the indigo bunting or scarlet tanager arriving here to breed.

In an article about sea ducks by H W Heusmann (Mass.Wildlife No.3, 2015) titled “Longtails & Harlequins” he tells us that “…tens of thousands of Long-tails winter in Massachusetts’ Nantucket Sound. They roost there overnight, then fly out to the Nantucket Shoals at dawn. There they spend the day at sea feeding, then return to their roosting area at dusk.” And that “Long-tails are exceptional divers, and have been caught in gill nets in Lake Michigan at depths of 150 feet.” (Neither species is found in Acton; both are coastal species in Massachusetts.)

MassWildlife Magazine Issue No.4, 2015 contains an article by Norman Smith, who has studied snowy owls for 35 years, explains that they are sometimes cannibals, like to live at Logan Airport, feast on lemmings on the Canadian tundra, and can see prey 2 miles away! One owl tracked by satellite transmitter had traveled over 7,000 miles in just 9 months. A great place to see Snowy Owls during the winter months is Plum Island.

Once hooked on birding, you will share sightings with others and never run short of conversation topics, posing astute analogies for life about travel, endurance, faith, diversity and song.