The Mississippi Flyway: An Essential Migration Route

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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.

Chinquapin Takes on Irene

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Whimbrel birds stand a height of 1.5 feet and are known to be migrating birds, referred to as long haul fliers, as they are able to travel distances of up to three thousand five hundred miles without resting in between and can maintain speeds of fifty miles per hour. Before they migrate they ready themselves by packing on weight, and will weigh approximately double their usual weight before migrating. What is truly amazing is a bird named Chinquapin that took on Hurricane Irene.

Chinquapin is a Whimbrel that was tagged with satellite tracking, enabling researchers and biologists, such as Fletcher Smith (College of William and Mary’s Centre for Conservation Biology), to track Chinquapin’s movements. Whimbrels are shorebirds but move to the high Arctic regions for breeding, with most birds remaining in Brazil during the winter months. To learn more about the migratory patterns of the whimbrels, tracking devices were fitted to a few birds.

Panic erupted as Chinquapin’s device transmitted that he was on a one way collision course with Hurricane Irene. As he entered the hurricane, his tracking device lost signal, leaving researchers expecting the worst and nervously watching their monitors to try and find him. Eventually his transmitter confirmed that he had made it through and was safely resting in the Bahamas. Smith said that it was incredible that some birds are able to increase their energy levels to fly through such horrific conditions. Even though Chinquapin survived, researchers are still no closer to finding out how he managed to survive.

Many birds are either thrown off course, or worst case scenario, killed, while trying to fly through these weather conditions, but it is not the first time for Chinquapin, who made the decision to fly around the 2010 Tropical Storm Colin. Another bird tried flying though the storm and was killed, while Chinquapin’s decision saved his life. Chinquapin is most definitely a very brave and special bird, and researchers will continue their efforts to track Whimbrels to learn more about them and their habits.

Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus)

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The impressive Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) is the largest of all falcons. Its body measures roughly 60 cm in length and its wingspan may be as wide as 130 cm. The male is usually about one third smaller than the female and the bird may weigh between 2 to 4.5 pounds. The plumage of the Gyrfalcon varies quite considerably from white to almost black. Throughout history, this impressive bird has been highly sought after for falconry. Because of its size and rarity, it was often reserved only for those of noble birth and during the middle ages only the king had the right to possess one. The Gyrfalcon continues to be a popular bird for falconry today though modern falconers may keep their ownership of such a bird secret to avoid theft. Falconers generally refer to the male Gyrfalcon as a ‘jerkin’.

All variations of the Gyrfalcon are similar in size and have long, broad-based, pointed wings and a short, dark, hooked beak. The adult-grey morph has grey upperparts and white underparts with dark streaks. The flight feathers are pale and there is a thin moustache mark. The tail is grey with thin white bands. The adult-white morph has white plumage and a white tail with black barring on the back and wings. The adult-dark morph has dark brown upperparts and a dark tail. The underparts are heavily streaked and the flight feathers are noticeably paler than the lining on the wings.

The Gyrfalcon is circumpolar in nature and tends to nest in the arctic regions of North America, Europe, Asia, Iceland and Greenland, though they may be found elsewhere in the world when not breeding. They can live in either open, treeless plains or in swampy, forested areas and can be found near cliffs along shorelines, rivers or even in mountains. They usually nest in depressions on a protected ledge or cliff face and may even make use of an abandoned nest or a suitable man-made structure from time to time. When they nest, they generally lay 2 to 6 eggs that may take 34 to 36 days to hatch. Interestingly, they nest in arctic regions and often begin to lay their eggs in below-zero temperatures. Gyrfalcon‘s take about 2 to 3 years to become sexually mature. They generally feed on ptarmigan, grouse, seabirds, waterfowl, lemmings and ground squirrels, catching their prey either in the air or on the ground.

King Eider (Somateria spectabilis)

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The King Eider (Somateria spectabilis) is a magnificent bird, receiving its name due to the male’s orange knob on the bill and marvelous blue crown. Whilst the female doesn’t compare to the male in physical attractiveness, both genders are remarkable sea-faring birds and certainly worth looking out for.

With the silhouette of a large diving duck, the King Eider measures in at 18 inches in length with a wingspan of 37 inches. The males and females are distinctly different in appearance. During breeding season the male is easily identified by his gentle blue crown and bright orange bill and knob. His back, flanks, tail and belly are black, whilst the neck and breast are white with a spot of white near the tail. Female King Eiders are well camouflaged in gray-brown feathers with fine barring in black. When breeding season is over the males slowly change to a color similar to that of the females but with black wings and a noticeable white patch upon the fore-wing. You are likely to hear the King Eider before you see it. Males call with a low “croo croo crooo”. Females have a diversity of sounds including grunts and croaks.

The King Eider bird species has a cicumpolar distribution. Nests are built all along Canada’s Arctic Coast, on Arctic Islands and through Alaska. During winter these birds migrate towards the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to the north of the USA. A gregarious bird, King Eidera form large migration groups, some numbering up to 10 000 birds. The King Eider is also found through Russia and Greenland, wintering in the Bering Sea.

King Eiders are marine ducks and thus are found feeding in the ocean’s waters. Their diet consists of invertebrates and mollusks such as mussels, sea urchins and sand dollars. They have even been known to dive to depths of 50 m whilst foraging. When breeding season arrives for the King Eiders the pairs will come onto land, but they will not nest in colonies. Nesting begins in mid June. The female bird will create a scraping in the ground with some shelter from vegetation. The female then incubates the clutch of 3 to 6 eggs for a period of about 23 days. The offspring are either left on their own after hatching or gathered up by remaining females.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)

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The Arctic is a harsh environment and most birds that travel to this harsh environment do so in summer to breed, and then migrate back home. The Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), Ptarmigan and the snow bunting are some of the few arctic birds that will live there all year round on the snowy tundra. It is not often that the snowy owl will move away from the arctic unless there is a particularly bad winter and their food is scarce. In that case they will leave the arctic and winter in northern Greenland, northern Eurasia, Canadian islands, Wrangel Islands and in North America.

Their name comes from their coloring, which is basically pure white when they are fully grown adults but will change in the summer to a brown with dark stripes and spots. Due to the icy cold environment that they stay in, the birds’ feet have extra thick pads and are covered with feathers to keep them warm. They are one of the largest owl species standing up to 27 inches high, with a wingspan of 45 to 60 inches.

Like other species of owls the Snowy owl has amazing day and night vision, allowing them to see their prey high up in the sky, from where they will swoop down silently and capture it. When the owl catches its prey it will either swallow it whole or it will tear it into big pieces and swallow. They eat hares, voles, lemmings and shrews and will sometimes eat small birds. During spring they will add eggs from swans and waterfowl to their diet.

When the female Snowy owl makes a nest she will stay on the 8 to 10 eggs while the male owl goes out to hunt for food for the both of them as well as protecting her from any danger. Once the owlets are born both the female and male will go out to search for food and at eight weeks of age the owlets will be ready to leave home. It is important that the owlets become independent quickly because the summer months are short and if they cannot look after themselves they will not survive the long icy cold winters.

The Amazing Migration of the Arctic Tern

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The Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) is a relatively small bird that is able to achieve staggering feats of flight. They are easily recognizable by their rounded heads that are covered in smooth black plumage, while the rest of their bodies are white in color. Another interesting fact about the Arctic Tern is that its bright orange beak changes color to red during the breeding. But it is the Arctic Tern migration that has made this little bird specie famous.

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