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Big Trip

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


We have the itch to travel come spring. What about food along the way? Where will we stay? Do we have good directions? Will we find affordable lodging? What if we encounter high wind storms or tornadoes? How will we spend time besides traveling? Will others help us find food, lodging, water, and the best stopping locations?

In nature niches, the answers mean life and death. Perhaps it would be best not to migrate and stay in a warm region near the low latitudes of South Florida or Central America. It is important for birds to risk their lives to travel to mid and high latitudes. If not, survival of their species would be at greater risk of extinction.

During the winter, food, shelter, and water are limited resources in the far north. One species, the Arctic Tern, flies from the North Pole region to the South Pole region where it experiences 24-hour summer daylight. During the arduous long trip, it experiences night and many survival challenges. All migrating species face conditions that reduce survival chances. This past year I took a pelagic boat trip into the ocean to view birds that do not come to land except to nest. Species, like gulls, that frequent land also venture out to sea.

A Savannah Sparrow was flying ten miles from shore cutting across expansive open water with distant land in view. Two California Gulls saw it and thought lunch. They pursued the bird and tried to nab it from the air. The sparrow was about 30 feet above water on a beautiful calm warm weather day. When a gull swooped to take the bird from the air, the sparrow quickly dropped down and slipped behind the gull out of reach of its bill. The second gull gave it try. I was rooting for the sparrow’s survival and hoped the gulls would find a meal elsewhere. The drama continued until we were out of sight of the trio. The best I could do was to offer a prayer for the sparrow to safely reach shore and shelter.

Such drama is commonplace for birds on migration. Most song birds are night migrators and the dark provides cover for safer travel. When light arrives, it is important to settle in protective thick vegetation. If birds are over one of the Great Lakes, they might experience the challenge faced by the Savannah Sparrow.

When a bird has flapped its wings all night, it has consumed stored fat and hunger will be high. Some birds are so focused on destination, they think little about food. I banded birds with Dr. Dwain Warner in the Big Bog of northern Minnesota near Red Lake and the Canadian border. The bog is over 100 miles across. Warblers on their way south from Canada stop in the Big Bog to replenish fat reserves. By the time, they get as far south as the bog, they have lost half their weight. After gorging for a few days and doubling weight, they resume travel on their big trip. It was found they fly without feeding much until thy arrive in Louisiana swamps where insects are abundant. They have lost half their weight again and must replenish fat before continuing the trip.

Avoidance of predators and hunger are only two migration perils. Storms can knock a small bird out of the air. My friend Donna Hickey told me about a tiny Golden-crowned Kinglet that had been knocked into the water of Lake Superior by a storm. It washed to shore alive. On shore, it took flight and flew up under her sister’s blouse and startled her. She slapped it from the blouse and the bird fell dead on the beach. They brought the bird to me to stuff for museum educational display.

What would make it worth the hazards to fly great distances? Breeding success is paramount. Daylight in the tropics is only about 12 to 14 hours. In the Arctic summer, it is light for 24 hours and in Michigan it is about 16 to 18 hours. Tremendous feeding on insects can occur during long daylight. Mosquitoes can cover and darken exposed skin in seconds. Insect populations fill high latitude habitats. When I was doing insect research above the Arctic Circle, a Say’s Phoebe was feeding every time I observed her during a 24-hour period. I presume she took short “catnaps.” It is easier to raise a family there than in the tropics. Greater diversity of insect species exists in the tropics but great population abundance is found in the arctic summer. That is one of the most important values for risking long spring migration to favored breeding grounds where days are long.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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