Starting in central Canada and stretching to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi Flyway is the name given to the route followed by birds migrating from their breeding grounds in North America to their wintering grounds in the south. The flyway includes Canada’s Mackenzie River which flows north through uninhabited forest and tundra into the Arctic Ocean, with tributaries reaching southwards, feeding into and out of a number of lakes, including the Great Slave Lake, Great Bear Lake and Lake Athabasca. As the name suggests, the Mississippi Flyway follows the route of the Mississippi River in the United States – North America’s largest river system. Originating in northern Minnesota, the slow-flowing river travels southwards for a distance of 2,530 miles, cutting through, or forming a border for, the states of Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee to before emptying into the Mississippi River Delta at the Gulf of Mexico.
According to Audubon, nearly half of the bird species and up to forty percent of the waterfowl of North America spend part of their lives in the Mississippi Flyway. With spectacular forests, grasslands and wetlands, the route provides good sources of food and water, with no mountainous areas to navigate along the entire route. The greatest elevation above sea level along the route is below 2,000 feet. The route is used by large numbers of geese, ducks, shorebirds, sparrows, blackbirds, thrushes and warblers, the majority of which cut across the Gulf of Mexico, providing excellent birding opportunities along the coasts of Louisiana and Texas.
Unfortunately, years of exploitation of natural resources by man has taken its toll on the environment, with waterways being diverted for irrigation having an impact on the habitat that birds and other wildlife rely on. A combination of dams, locks and levees have reduced the Mississippi to less than ten percent of its original floodplain with an estimated nineteen square miles of delta wetlands disappearing annually. Thanks to the efforts of Audubon, which has offices in Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, efforts to preserve habitats along the Mississippi Flyway are making a difference to the birds that make use of the route each year. Audubon is currently focusing intensive conservation efforts on twenty-seven bird species along the Mississippi Flyway, namely: Mottled Duck; Greater Prairie-Chicken; Brown Pelican; Little Blue Heron; Reddish Egret; Swallow-tailed Kite; Clapper Rail; Snowy Plover; Wilson’s Plover; Piping Plover; American Oystercatcher; Upland Sandpiper; Ruddy Turnstone; Red Knot; Sanderling; Western Sandpiper; Short-billed Dowitcher; Least Tern; Black Skimmer; Prothonotary Warbler; Swainson’s Warbler; Cerulean Warbler; Grasshopper Sparrow; Henslow’s Sparrow; Seaside Sparrow; Bobolink; and Eastern Meadowlark.
The Ross’s goose or as it is scientifically named, Chen rossii, is 16 inches long with a total wingspan of 51 inches. It is a small goose, weighing between 860 to 2040 g, which sometimes hybridizes with the Snow Goose and has many different colored morphs. The white Ross’s Goose is very similar to the white morph Snow Goose, the differences are that the Ross’s Goose is smaller, its bill is stubby, it does not have a black patch on its mandibles and its head looks rounder with a short neck.
The white morph-adult has completely white plumage with black primaries and has pink legs, feet and bill. The white morph-immature has a majority white plumage with grey upper parts. It also has black primaries, dark feet and legs and dark bill. The immature white morph Snow Goose has a darker back than the Ross’s Goose. The blue morph-adult has a dark lower neck and body and a white head and upper neck. It has a pink bill, legs and feet with dark primaries and secondaries.
The Ross’s Goose will breed on tundra near the Southampton Islands in Hudson Bay and the northeastern Mackenzie. During the winter period the Ross’s Goose will stay mainly in California, east coast and the lower Mississippi Valley in salty or freshwater marshes. In the summer the Goose will stay in the central Canadian Arctic. The call of the Ross’s Goose is a high-pitched “keek keek keek”. It is a completely vegetarian bird eating different grasses, legumes and domestic grains. It scrapes out the ground and makes a nest in the hole, lining it with plant material and down feathers.
The female Ross’s Goose will lay 2-6, white eggs that become stained during incubation. The female Ross’s Goose does all the incubation of the eggs while the male stands on guard the whole time. When the female eventually has to leave the nest she will cover it in down to keep the eggs warm and to hide them from any predators lurking around. When the chicks hatch they come out covered in either a yellow or grey down and their eyes wide open. It takes the juveniles only 24 hours after hatching to have the ability to feed and swim.
The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) is located in the eastern regions of the United States, but there are indications that the population is beginning to spread to the northern regions as well. Conservationists can only assume that the growing numbers in these regions is due to humans feeding the birds. The Tufted Titmouse frequents bird feeders and will often chase other birds that try to use this convenient facility. This little Titmouse was originally only found along the Mississippi river basin and the Ohio river basin. Over the years, the sightings have been recorded as they started to spread across the country. The Tufted Titmouse is between 4.5 to 5.5 inches in length and both the males and females are similar in appearance. They have dark to black foreheads, gray heads and white plumage covers the under body parts such as their throats, faces and bellies. The flanks are a rusty color and the upper parts such as back and wings, are a light gray. Bills are short and black, and have dark eyes. The Titmouse will often be seen in small flocks.
Titmice will feed on a large variety of foods that include blackberries, nuts, acorns and sunflower seeds, and insects such as ants, wasps, caterpillars, spiders and snails. Insects will mostly be eaten in the warm summer months, while fruits and nuts will be eaten in the winter months.
Breeding season for the Titmouse is from April to July. The Tufted Titmouse will mate for life and will build their nests in the cavities in trees that are left by Woodpeckers, natural hollows or created by a fungus. Nests are constructed from almost anything they can find. Building materials can include cloth, grass, moss, bark, leaves, hair and feathers. Titmice feel no shame in ripping some fur from a passing squirrel or even plucking a few strands from a human head, to complete their homes. The female will lay five to six eggs that are white in color and are speckled with brown. The incubation period takes approximately fourteen days and both parents will assist in the feeding of the chicks until they are ready to fledge the nest at 16 days.
The Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia) was first recorded by Alexander Wilson in the 1800s. He had noticed a specimen in the magnolia trees while in Mississippi. The name ‘Magnolia’ has persisted through the years, although this bird is native to the northeastern regions of the United States. Wilson had at first used the English name of “Black and Yellow Warbler” with “magnolia” as the Latin name. The Magnolia Warbler is part of the warbler family and is the most common of the warbler species in this area. These warblers prefer to forage close to the ground and in low growing bushes. Preferred habitat would be overgrown pastures, on the edges of a swamp or lake, or clearings that have small trees.
The Magnolia Warbler is a tiny bird that is approximately 13 centimeters in length and weighs about nine grams. It has bright yellow plumage over its throat, breast and belly, and is striped with black on its breast. The warbler also has a black mask on his face, a pale gray colored crown, and a white broken eye ring. The black coloring continues down its back, and runs into gray wings that have broad white edges. The female is relatively similar, with duller coloring. Its wingspan is about 20 centimeters, and the birds have extremely weak flight abilities, which results in the rapid beating of wings, and the alternating of wings to rest.
Male Magnolia Warblers are known to have two different bird songs. The one is used during the mating season, and the other is to protect its territory. The warbler feeds on insects as its primary source of food, but will also eat berries, and if humans have been kind enough to leave any bread product out they will gladly eat that too.
Shallow grass and root nests are built for the female to lay her eggs in. The warbler female will lay between three to five eggs, usually four, which are white in color and have brown spots on the shell. Only the female Magnolia Warbler will take part in the 11 to 13 day incubation period. The males will assist in the feeding of the chicks after they have hatched. Chicks will fledge the nest after 8 to 10 days.
The Mississippi Kite or as it is scientifically known, the Ictinia mississippiensis, is 12.5 inches long and has a wingspan of 36 inches, weighing between 7 and a half to 12 ounces. Both the male and female are similar in size. It is a medium-sized, long-winged hawk and is known for its graceful movements. The wings of the Mississippi kite are long and pointed and the tail is long and squared-off at the end. The beak is dark in color, short and hooked.
The adult kite has a pale grey head with a dark mask at the lores. The breast, under wing, belly and under tail coverts are also gray. The gray becomes darker on its back, primaries, upper wing coverts and upper tail coverts. Above the kite you can see its pale silvery grey secondaries and when it is flying you can notice its black flight feathers and black tail.
The juvenile Mississippi kite has a streaked, brownish head with a pale superciliary line. The young bird has a dark brown back and upper wing and a dark tail with distinct white bands going across it. The breast, under wing coverts and belly are streaked heavily with a rich brown colour. As the juvenile gets older its head and breast start looking grey like the adult bird with a few remnants of the brown colour. The under wing continues to be streaked heavily with brown and the dark tail and white bands remain.
Another species that is similar to the Mississippi kite is the Black-shouldered kite, which is also medium sized and shape but the breast and tail are whiter and not so grey in color. Kites have a similar body structure to the falcon but the head patterns differ a lot. From a distance the Northern Harrier can look similar and is differentiated only by its pale broad under wings and its white rump.
The Mississippi Kite can be found roosting and making nests in woodlands and in tree clusters. The kite prefers the edge of the woodland, grasslands, human-altered areas, savannas, farms and towns to hunt in. In summer you will find the Mississippi kite mainly in the Southern part of the United States and then in winter you will find it migrating as far south as northern Argentina.