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Long-distance flyers

Many migrating birds travel an astonishing number of kilometres and some even make the trip non-stop

It’s migration time, not just for “Canadian snowbirds” returning from a winter in the southern U.S. or Mexico, but for actual birds returning north for the nesting season. April and May are prime months for migrating birds to reach Manitoba, although a few early species may appear in March, and late ones in June. Horned larks have been known to arrive in January, although some ornithologists suggest that perhaps they never left.

Some of the birds arriving back in our province have travelled only a short distance, having gone just far enough south to find open water or a needed food source. Canada geese arriving here in March might come from the northern or central U.S. states. Robins and crows, also early arrivals, have perhaps flown only a few hundred kilometres. But other migrants fly mind-boggling distances.

One long-distance flyer which often nests in southern Manitoba is the Wilson’s phalarope. It migrates here from South America — sometimes all the way from its southern tip. Other phalaropes nest farther north in Canada, but the Wilson’s variety nests on the Prairies. This species is also unusual in that the females have brighter plumage than males, and they leave the males to hatch the eggs and feed the young once the egg laying is complete.

One species most famous for long-distance migration is the Arctic tern which passes through southern Manitoba in spring on its way to nesting grounds along Hudson Bay or even Greenland. It has flown all the way from the Antarctic seas. The yearly round trip may total over 70,000 km a year (approximately 45,000 miles), considered the longest migration route in the world.

The American golden plover is another amazing traveller. These birds nest in the Churchill area, and nestlings leave on their own, just six or eight weeks after hatching. Their flight pattern on the way south is strange. They fly southeast from Hudson Bay, travelling either by the Labrador coast or coastal New England in the U.S. From there they fly non-stop over the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil, a distance of 3,800 km (2,400 miles). This is without the adult birds, which leave three or four weeks before their offspring. The birds’ route north in the spring is shorter, flying more directly through the central U.S.

Canada geese are among the early arrivals in the spring.
photo: Gamache Photos

Some smaller birds also have fascinating flight patterns. Most travel over land, often via Mexico and Central America, making stops along the way. But a 2015 study showed that the blackpoll warbler, a small songbird weighing about 12 grams, flies non-stop across the Atlantic from the eastern U.S. coast to wintering grounds in South America. Researchers in Vermont and Nova Scotia attached tiny geolocator “backpacks” to a number of birds. The packs were too small to fit transmitters but had instruments to measure data. The following spring five birds were recaptured and the data showed they took journeys across the Atlantic of 2-1/2 to three days, travelling non-stop about 2,500 km (1,550 miles) until they could land in Colombia or Venezuela. To accomplish this feat, the birds eat enough to nearly double their weight before taking off. For more information about this amazing flight, check out this article on The Guardian.

One well-known traveller is the ruby-throated hummingbird (see photo at top). Because of their tiny size, there used to be a myth that hummingbirds migrated by riding on the backs of Canada geese, but this is completely false. The ruby-throat weighs only two to six grams, but migrates here from Central America, a distance of up to 6,000 km. Most fly non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico, about 800 km, from the Yucatan to the U.S. coast. It is believed that they typically leave at dusk and take 18 to 22 hours, depending on the weather, with the males normally leaving first. The migration is spread over three months — nature’s way of preventing a total disaster if bad weather occurs.

After hummers reach the U.S., they continue migrating north at a rate of about 30 km per day, corresponding to the gradual blooming of their preferred flowers. Studies have shown, through bird banding, that they usually return to the same place they hatched, perhaps even the same feeders. Studies also show that in fall migrations, more hummingbirds follow the Texas coast back into Mexico instead of taking the route across the Gulf.

The migration of birds is an intriguing phenomenon. This spring as you watch for our returning migrants, stop to think of how far some of them have flown.

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