Bird migration contains down-to-earth lessons

By Michael Mentzer

It’s a spring tradition now, more than 25 years in the making.

Slices of juicy, fragrant oranges impaled on wooden pegs send an invitation skyward.

Two small bowls of grape jelly and strawberry jam await visitors beneath a small cedar shelter hanging from a clothesline post.

The feeders are filled with black birdseed.

On a table near the windows in the family room rest a pair of binoculars and my time-honored Peterson Field Guide.

It’s time for the northward bird migration and the realization that sometimes the best place to be in the midst of spring is your own proverbial backyard.

The vigil at our house begins late in April and continues at least through the first week in June.

For whatever reason, these past few weeks rank among the best for bird watching that we’ve ever seen in this little fraction of the world along the Dutch Gap and the Fond du Lac River not far from the buzz of traffic on South Main Street.

Like clockwork

Rose-breasted grosbeaks arrived on May 7, right on time despite the brutal winter and the reluctant spring.

It seemed like all the birds were late but calendar notes from years past say differently. The black and white males with the scarlet patch on their breast and penchant for black bird seed had arrived in our back yard on May 7 or 8 for several years running.

They arrived in droves this May, the most we’ve ever seen.

And with them came Baltimore orioles, orchard orioles and a number of species we haven’t seen in a few years.

Waves of grosbeaks and orioles arrived early May 7 in the aftermath of thunder, lightning and rain during the night. I wondered if they were caught in the storm or if they stopped here because of it.

There’s no doubt in my mind that they were traveling the same flyway together from their wintering grounds in Central America and points between and beyond.

They come from a variety of southern locations and link up along the way like travelers who share a special destination. Lucky for us that Wisconsin ranks as special to them.

Important link

Two key points in the link that brings bursts of color and song to our part of the world are Belize and the Osa Peninsula of southwestern Costa Rica.

The Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin points out that 55 species of Wisconsin birds spend the winter in the Osa Peninsula.

Belize, located just west of Guatemala and north of Honduras in Central America, provides welcoming habitat for about 80 species of birds that make their way to Wisconsin.

It’s apparent that the habitat of those faraway places as well as the habitat here will have a say in the future of bird species we call our own.

Literally, hundreds of thousands of migrant songbirds, waterfowl and raptors find their way here and navigate northward along the Ledge and shores of Lake Winnebago.

In the bargain, we get to savor the sight of American redstarts, the birds with butterfly tendencies; indigo buntings, the bluest of the blue; scarlet tanagers; yellow warblers and a host of their warbler brethren; white-crowned and white throated sparrows; chipping sparrows; ovenbirds; water thrushes; towhees; a variety of finches; occasional cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks; and of course, orioles and grosbeaks.

I can’t neglect to mention hummingbirds, the tiniest of birds with the hearts of eagles. A bird that barely weigh three grams, the hummingbird transcends 500 miles of the Gulf of Mexico in one burst of relentless resolve to fly to northern Wisconsin and beyond to populate the flyway for generations to come.

Unifying the hemisphere

For humans and birds and virtually all living creatures, spring signals survival and another chance.

For many people, the northward migration unites continents and unifies the hemisphere. The same case could be made for the southward migration in fall, but that’s a time when we lose our birds to summer in another part of the world.

The people of Mexico, Central America, the West Indies, Peru, Brazil and Argentina watch, feed and enjoy many of the same birds we do. They host them from fall through our winter and into April.

Then in a shift of time, energy, warmth and sunlight, our part of the world welcomes them back with open arms to produce a new generation to populate the meadows, forests, wetlands, waterways and ultimately the flyways that connect us.

Fortunately, birds know no national boundaries. They go where they please. We all benefit from that expanse of natural freedom.

Despite the freedom, we’ve come to realize that wild creatures, scenic places and natural resources are finite. So are we. There is a bond in that realization.

Plover lesson

A friend 50 years my senior and long since passed once explained to me the significance of a taken-for-granted bird that once roamed the prairie where UW-Fond du Lac and Moraine Park Technical College are located.

Known as upland plovers (now called upland sandpipers), they arrived like clockwork in the first days of May in the early 1900s on the prairie below the Ledge in Fond du Lac—sort of like the rose breasted grosbeaks I wrote about earlier.

Unlike grosbeaks, though, upland plovers braved an annual 4,000-mile flight from Argentina to Fond du Lac to raise their broods before making their return trip in August.

Upland plovers still exist but not here. The habitat here no longer supports their needs.

They still make that monumental journey to the Argentine Pampas and back again to the Great Plains, but none of us gets the opportunity to see them or to watch their broods mature and take flight above the Ledge.

I think about it sometimes when I wait impatiently — even nervously — for the orioles, grosbeaks and indigos to arrive at the feeders in my backyard.

I wonder what I’d do if they did not.

I’ve learned it’s never wise to take things for granted.

Michael Mentzer, now retired after a 40-year newspaper career, writes a monthly column for Scene.

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