The Mississippi Flyway: An Essential Migration Route

December 18, 2012 by  
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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.

Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival 2012

September 18, 2012 by  
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Taking place in one of the most biologically diverse and important birding areas in British Columbia, the very popular Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival offers a unique view of these majestic raptors which are drawn to the area by the countless numbers of spawning salmon making their way up the Fraser River. Birding enthusiasts will also had a good chance of veiwing trumpeter swans, ducks and other birds, as well as seals, bears, coyotes and deer. For more information visit

Dates: 17-18 November 2012
Venue: Fraser Valley
City: Mission
State: British Columbia
Country: Canada

Wings Over the Rockies

February 16, 2011 by  
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The 2011 theme for Wings Over the Rockies is “Celebrating Our Valley, Celebrating the People. As the 15th anniversary the event, it will be honoring nature and the people who created and continue to support the festival. The festival schedule includes about 70 educational events, such as field trips, presentation, river paddles and an art exhibit. This is a thrilling an educational event for anyone interested in birds and the natural heritage of Columbia Valley Wetlands.

Date: 2 to 8 May 2011
Venue: Pynelogs Cultural Centre
City: Invermere
State: British Columbia
Country: Canada

The Americas IBA Directory

May 19, 2010 by  
Filed under Features

The conservation of rare birdlife has been the focus of Birdlife International for many years. In 1995 they began a project by the name of IBA, or Important Bird Area Program, to pinpoint areas across the globe that are home to endangered species, identifying the various species and protecting those areas to assist in conserving vital birdlife. At present, more than ten thousand of these areas have been identified, and conservation and environmental initiatives have been implemented. Now a new program has been established, namely the Americas IBA Directory.

Hundreds of bird species will benefit from the Americas IBA Directory, as it will be a guideline for both conservationists and for authorities. The directory covers 57 different countries and has 2 345 of the most significant areas listed that need to be protected at all costs. Authorities will be able to refer to the directory to find out which of their areas are vital to the survival of birdlife, which bird species are located in that area and the biodiversity of the area, to enable them to take the right steps in protecting the natural habitat and the birds. Some areas that have been listed are significant in the migratory patterns of certain species, while others are crucial nesting sites for numerous endangered birds. Due to a number of these areas being inhabited by local communities, also relying on the natural resources such as water, authorities can assist these communities with sustainable development that will not only benefit the communities but the birdlife as well.

Hundreds of organizations have provided support and assistance in the compiling of the Americas IBA Directory. President of Bird Studies Canada, George Finney, explained: “From breeding grounds in Canada, to wintering sites in the south, and all points in between, it is imperative that we understand what is happening to bird populations and the forces that drive change. Bird Studies Canada is proud to work closely with our international partners on this issue, so that better management decisions and conservation actions can be taken.” A large number of agencies will be working together as IBA Caretakers, tracking migratory patterns and data in regard to bird populations, to note changes being made by the birds, and keeping the IBA Directory as up to date and accurate as possible.

Birding at Algonquin Park in Ontario

February 9, 2010 by  
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The Algonquin Provincial Park was established in the year 1893 to protect the headwaters of the area’s five major rivers. The beauty and biodiversity of the park has inspired many books and paintings, and thousands of visitors are welcomed to the park each year. Located in one of the most picturesque areas of Ontario, Canada, the Algonquin Provincial Park offers tourists tranquility, beauty and a large variety of activities. One particularly popular activity in the park is bird watching.

The fact that Algonquin Provincial Park has approximately seven thousand insect species in the park might sound insignificant to some, but without the insects, the pollination of plant life would not happen and the habitats in which the birds and animals live would no longer exist. The varied vegetation provides both animal and bird life with vital resources. Also found in the park, are two forest types, namely the coniferous forests and southern hardwood forests, creating a home for a vast number of different birds. Visitors and avid bird watchers can therefore look forward to seeing birds such as the Brown Thrasher, Indigo Bunting, Spruce Grouse, Wood Thrush, Boreal Chikadee, Gray Jay, Common Loon and many others that form part of the 272 species in the park. In addition, the Algonquin Provincial Park offers bird related programs such as Birds in Winter, Owl Prowl and Bird Adaptations. Talks are also held in the evenings in the park’s outdoor theatre, covering a wide variety of topics related to the park. Guided tours are available as well as a bird species checklist.

After a day of bird watching visitors can explore other features at the park, such as the picnic areas, stores, bookstore, backpacking trails, museum, art centre, restaurants and beaches. There are also a few lodges in the park enabling visitors to extend their stay and maybe explore the breathtaking bird life found along the rivers on the canoe routes. Bird watching in Canada is a rewarding experience and the Algonquin Provincial Park offers visitors everything they could need for an unforgettable bird watching adventure and family vacation.

Dark-Eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Dark-eyed Junco or the Junco hyemalis is 5.25 to 6 inches, or 14 to 16 cm, in length and has a pinkish, conical bill and white outer tail feathers. The wingspan is 7 to 10 inches, or 18 to 25 cm, in length and it weighs 18 to 30 grams. The Dark-eyed Junco varies in coloring depending on its geographical location. Before, the various forms of the Junco were considered to be separate species but now they are considered to be all the same.

The White-winged Junco has a medium gray head and upper body, with a pure white belly and wing bars. The female and the young birds are a browner looking colour to the male, as described above. The White-Winged junco breeds from Montana to Nebraska.

The Oregon Junco on the other hand has a dark gray head and breast with a brown back and wings. The females and young differ in that their colour is duller then the male. This variety of the bird breeds from Alaska to California.

The Slate-coloured Junco is similar to the Oregon Junco in that it also has a dark gray head and upper body and a white belly. The females and young are also browner than the male. The Slate-coloured junco breeds in eastern United States and Canada.

The Pink-sided Junco name comes from the bird’s pinkish flanks. The Junco has a medium gray head and breast and dark lores. The Junco’s back and wings are brown and its belly is white in colour. Like the other varieties, the female and the immature birds are browner in colour then the male. This variety of the Junco breeds from Alberta to Idaho.

The last of the varieties is the Gray-headed Junco, which breeds in the Rocky Mountains. It has a medium gray plumage, which is paler in colour on the belly. The back is a rusty colour, the lores are dark and occasionally the Gray-headed junco has a dark upper mandible.

Other species that are similar in appearance to the Dark-eyed Junco is the local southeastern Arizona, Yellow-eyed Junco, and the difference being the dark eyes. The Black-chinned Sparrow is also similar in colour. It has a streaked back with brown wings but doesn’t have white feathers in its tail. This common small sparrow is widespread and is seen often as a winter visitor at all the bird feeders.

Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis canadensis)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Spruce Grouse, Falcipennis canadensis, can be found throughout Canada excepting for the extreme north. Then in the United States you can find the Grouse in Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Northern New England and Michigan. The Spruce Grouse lives in forests that contain coniferous trees, especially if they are pine and spruce trees.

The Spruce Grouse is 13 inches long and is a medium-sized, stocky, chicken-looking bird with rounded wings and a long squarish tail. The male grouse looks similar to the Blue Grouse, the only difference being the white barring and spotting on his under parts, as the Blue Grouse is totally brown. Another small difference is the tip of the tail, which is grey/black in comparison to the Spruce Grouse who has a brown tip. The “Franklin” variety of the Spruce Grouse doesn’t have the brown tip but has a white speckled upper tail.

The adult male bird wears a red comb that just covers his eyes. His neck is black, excepting for the white border around it, and his belly is grey with white spots and has black barring on the upper parts. His breast is black and has white bars going across it and his upper tail is black speckled with white spots and a pale brown band at the top.

The adult female bird has a reddish-brown or grey-brown plumage that is covered with white and dark-brown barring on the under parts and a black tail with the same brown band. She does not have the red comb like her male counterpart. The female Spruce Grouse looks very alike the female Blue Grouse but has white and black barring on her belly and the band on the tail is brown not grey. The female will make a nest on the ground, which is camouflaged well by the ground cover. The Spruce Grouse is a permanent resident but will move a small distance by foot if they need another location for winter.

During winter these birds will look for food either on the ground or in trees. The grouse is well adapted and their digestive sacs in their intestines can enlarge in size to quite an extent to accommodate the grouse’s winter diet of conifer needles. In summer they will include in their diet berries, insects and a variety of green plants. If you happen to come upon a Spruce grouse they tend to stand still even if you are only a few feet away from them. However, in the winter months they become more skittish due to lack of camouflaging and will take flight if you come within 20 to 150 feet of them.

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is a very large bird at a length of 25 inches and a 72 inch wingspan. These broad wings allow the vulture to soar in the skies for great lengths of time. At intervals, the vulture will flap its wings slowly and then continue to soar. Both the males and females are similar in appearance, with the females generally larger than the males. They have bills that are of average length and are hooked at the tip. Their heads are red in color and have no plumage, with short red legs and are predominantly dark brown to black in color. Even though this scavenger of the sky is not much to look at, it is their graceful flight ability that attracts us to this species, as many of the practiced adult vultures rarely need to flap their wings, instead they are able to ride the wind elegantly while searching larges areas for food.

Turkey Vultures are commonly found throughout Northern America and Canada, and have also been sighted in South and Central America. These vultures are usually solitary hunters, and prefer rocky cliffs, open ranges, open forest areas, and can also be seen at near agricultural regions at times. The coastal shores will also be searched for any washed up fish or dead seals. But mostly they will feed on domestic and wild carrion, and eating takes place on the ground, as their claws are too weak to carry their food to another location. Vultures will often fly close to ground, as they use their sense of smell to pick up blood and other odors that can lead them to the dead animal. This ability to process smell makes it possible for the Turkey Vulture to locate food under the forest canopies. They will  only eat dead animals and contrary to popular belief, circling vultures do not necessarily mean that there is a dead animal. Vultures often circle the skies during play, to gain altitude and to search for their food.

Turkey Vultures will either nest on the ground or in caves. Nests are not built or constructed, but hollows are dug into the ground or in the cave soil. Vultures that live near agricultural lands will often use sheds or barns to offer protection to their nest. The female vulture can lay one to three eggs, but most commonly lays two. Both the male and female vultures will care for the eggs during the incubation period that can last for 38 to 41 days. Parents will feed the chicks regurgitated food, and chicks will fledge the nest between 70 to 80 days after hatching.

Whooping Crane (Grus americana)

February 9, 2009 by  
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Named for its whooping call, the Whooping Crane (Grus americana) is unique in a number of ways. Firstly, at 1.5 meters in height with a wingspan of 2.3 meters, this beautiful bird is the tallest bird in North America. It is also unique in that it is the only crane species that is found exclusively in North America. However, despite their immense size, Whooping Cranes are an endangered species. When counted in 1995, there were 149 Whooping Cranes in the US. This is quite an increase from the 14-16 that were around in the 1940s but a far cry from the 1,500 or so that inhabited parts of western Canada and the US in the 1800s. Fortunately conservations efforts have been largely successful and there are currently more than 320 Whooping Cranes in the world.

Because of their immense size, Whooping Cranes are easily identifiable. They are very large birds with long legs and a long neck. Their dark bills are long and pointed and their long dark legs trail behind them when they fly. Whooping Cranes tend to hold their necks straight, both when resting and during flight, instead of adopting the S-like bend that many other long-necked birds make use of. Adults have a red crown and entirely white plumage. There is a bit of black near the base of their bills which extends onto the cheeks somewhat. You might also spot black wing tips when the adult bird is in flight. Juvenile birds have a white body with scattered brown feathers as well as a pale brown head and neck.

The Whooping Crane prefers to make use of ‘muskegs’ for breeding purposes. Currently there is only one known nesting location – that of Wood Buffalo National Park which is in Canada. The Whooping Crane nests on the ground in a marshy area. The female lays 1-3 eggs and both the male and female raise the young. Whooping cranes generally mate for life. Usually only one bird survives and the weaker is starved to death or pushed out the nest. Whooping Cranes are omnivorous and they eat snails, insects, leeches, minnows, frogs, small rodents, waste grain, plant roots and berries. They may scavenge on dead birds or muskrats, and in Texas they have been known to eat snakes, acorns, wild fruit, small fish and shellfish. Most of their food is obtained by foraging in shallow water or in fields. The main reason for this bird’s dwindling numbers is that of habitat loss. Fortunately several conservation projects have resulted in varying measures of success but the bird still has a long way to go before it is no longer considered to be an endangered species.

American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Eastern or American Goldfinch, Latin name Carduelis tristis, is a member of the finch, Fringillidae, family. It is a typical North American seed eating bird and so only starts nesting in mid to late summer, when weed seeds are available. Because they are late breeders the goldfinch stays in a flock for much longer than other species of birds that have already formed pairs and have begun breeding. Due to late nesting, only one single brood is raised every year.

The goldfinch is about 11 to 13 cm long, smaller than a sparrow. These little birds breed all over southern Canada and from Newfoundland to British Columbia, as well as in the northern and southern states of America. They like open spaces with trees spotted around, like orchards and alongside the road.

American Goldfinches have been studied quite extensively and it has been found that when they migrate they often hesitate before they fly over water, with some even returning to the mainland. It takes the main leader of the group to head out over the water before the others, one by one, will follow along. It won’t be long before they will return to the water’s edge, chatting away noisily to each other almost as if they are gathering courage. Again they will try head over the water and those that remain will return to land until winter forces the birds to complete their migration.

The breeding male is bright yellow in colour with a white rump and a black forehead. The wings and tail are black with a white outer edge; the wings differentiate from the tail because of having an extra splash of yellow on the bend of each wing. The male and female have a dull olive-gray winter coat with black wings, tail and white stripes on their wings. When spring comes around again the goldfinches lose all their dark winter feathers and once again regain their striking orange bill. The male American Goldfinch differs from the female in that the rest of his body goes a canary yellow with a black cap.

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