The long flight home

Migratory birds converge on Lake Erie shoreline en route to breeding grounds

4/29/2013
BY MATT MARKEY AND JEFF BASTING
BLADE STAFF

Their flight plans likely were filed eons ago. With no coordinates to lock in on, no GPS to pinpoint the destination, and no MapQuest to provide turn-by-turn directions, they cover thousands of miles through the air and end up precisely where they are supposed to be, and usually on time.

Migratory birds are one of nature’s true wonders, and the many warblers and other songbirds that use the Lake Erie shoreline region as a rest and fuel stop on their lengthy trip north each spring push the envelope on miraculous.

They are Neotropical migrants – breeding and hatching their young in the northern U.S. and Canada, and spending the winters in Mexico, Central American, the Caribbean islands or South America.

These often brilliantly-hued birds are incredibly strong flyers, and some of the best singers in the avian world. They hit the high notes, both with their melodic songs and their mega-distance passage.

“Some of them weigh less than an ounce, yet they still make these huge flights,” said Matt Anderson, a bird expert with the Toledo Naturalists’ Association. “It is one of the greatest things in nature, and we may never know why. You just marvel at it.”

The Blackburnian Warbler is just over four inches long, from its beak to its tail, and weighs about half an ounce. It will winter in the forests of South America, as distant as Bolivia or central Brazil, and then stream north to breeding grounds as far north as Alberta. Like many other long-distance migrants, the Blackburian will often include a stop along Lake Erie in its travelogue.

“As the years go by, this fascinates me more and more,” said Anderson. “If you stop and contemplate how this happens, it truly is an absolute wonder.”

The Blackburnian Warbler, the Canada Warbler and the Black-throated Blue Warbler are just a few of the songbirds that birding enthusiasts expect to see clustered in the marshes and wooded areas near the lake over the next few weeks. “The Biggest Week in American Birding” event, which runs from May 3-12, focuses on this phenomenon with a wide range of bird-watching tours, workshops and outings in northwest Ohio.

Warblers are not the only frequent fliers in the migration game. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are larger, finch-like birds that sport an explosion of brilliant red, white and black feathers and a large bill they use for consuming seeds and fruit. They will winter as far south as Ecuador, and then fly north to near the Yukon to nest and hatch their young.

Point Place resident Helen Tobian had a Rose-breasted Grosbeak show up at her feeder recently and then hang around for a while, no doubt filling up on a rich diet to fuel the next leg in its journey that could cover more than 5,000 miles.

“It is amazing to think about it, that this bird could have left from somewhere in South America, and end up in my backyard,” she said. “I’ve lived here for 24 years and I’ve never seen one before, so this is quite a treat. I just can’t believe how far they travel.”

Contact Blade outdoors editor

Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068 .