Blackburnia Warbler (photo: Greg Feetham)

A tough journey

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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As November arrives on Prince Edward Island, we notice fewer and fewer bird species that are common throughout the summer and fall.

The warblers that are so common in the summer and fall—American redstart, common yellowthroat, ovenbird, and many others—have left for warmer climates. During the breeding season, they enchant us with their lovely songs and incredible colours.  But before they head south, birders frustratingly refer to them as “confusing fall warblers,” as once they moult out of their breeding plumage, they are often hard to distinguish from one another.

We’ve mostly said goodbye to the gannets that seem to own East Point during the fall, the Swainson’s and hermit thrushes that are singing stars of our forests, and the sandpipers and plovers that have the run of our beaches.

It is a time of change for sure, and it is always a bit sad to say goodbye, though if things don’t go totally off the rails we will see them again next spring.

While birds often face threats on their wintering grounds—imagine flying back to the Amazon and having your habitat in flames—the migratory routes are also fraught with danger. There are the predators along the way, most notably cats. Environment Canada estimates that “cats kill between 100 million and 350 million birds per year in Canada, 38% of those by pet cats, and the rest by feral cats.”

Then there are the urban areas with buildings that are lit during the night, confusing birds and leading to millions of deaths each year. New research from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology found that “between 365 million and one billion birds are killed in such accidents each year in the United States.”

Incredible numbers, and they don’t even include the birds that die from pesticides, cars, windmills, and natural predators such as hawks and falcons.

Despite these threats, many do manage to successfully make the amazing journey to their wintering grounds and then back to Prince Edward Island in the spring. One of the most fascinating aspects of our bird banding at Macphail Woods is holding a brilliantly-coloured blackburnian warbler in my hand and wondering how this bird that weighs less than 10 grams can fly to Costa Rica and Peru and back every year.  We often hear people talk about “bird-brained” ideas, but those tiny brains are actually quite remarkable. I can’t even find my way around the UPEI campus without a map, yet these birds fly thousands of kilometers each year and can come back to the same exact location here to breed. And I don’t mean the same rough area. Sometimes we will recapture a bird years later in exactly the same net!

That just seems like such an impressive accomplishment.

And on a much happier note, with the departure of the grackles and red-winged blackbirds and saw-whet owls, we become excited about the coming return of our winter birds. We start putting up our feeders, looking for the flocks of purple finches, pine siskins and redpolls.  We await the Bohemian waxwings and pine grosbeaks feeding on the mountain ash and winterberry holly fruit. And of course, the hundreds and sometimes thousands of snow buntings are a sure sign that we are in the throes of winter.

In the next Nature of PEI column, I’ll talk more about winter birding and the Christmas Bird Counts.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.