Everyone likes a road-trip story. From Homer’s Odyssey to the outrageous (and likely embellished) tale of your family’s star-crossed trip to Yellowstone, there is something about a hero overcoming obstacles to get from Point A to Point B that captures our attention.
May 2010 issue
Good Natured: Making Room for Nature in Our Busy Lives
Winged Warriors Put on a Spring Show
Today, our “road warrior” is the bobolink. This tiny songbird, which weighs little more than an ounce, starts out each spring from the grasslands of Argentina and flies as many as 6,000 miles to reach his nesting grounds. On the way, he’s constantly in search of food and beset by stormy weather and predatory hawks.
Yet when the bobolink arrives this month in, say, the meadows of Ohio’s Amish country, he won’t show his wing-weariness. No, he will be arrayed in his formal courtship plumage, which some describe as looking like a tuxedo worn backward, with a straw-colored hat on his head. And he’ll be singing love ballads. Henry David Thoreau described the bird thus: “This flashing, tinkling meteor bursts through the expectant meadow air, leaving a train of tinkling notes behind.”
Yes, spring brings us many wonderful road-trip stories. And because these animals often appear en masse and in breeding colors, the seasonal migration gives all of us a chance to be a witness to some of the most memorable visual spectacles nature has to offer. So what if you normally can’t tell a woodpecker from a wood duck? This is one of nature’s simple gifts to all of us.
Birding in Ohio
Ohio offers plenty of opportunities for migration-watching. You might have to travel a little and you might have to get lucky, but May is the time for both. If you visit the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in May, you might see a flock of several hundred sandpipers, wheeling and diving in unison to escape a pursuing peregrine falcon. Or witness flocks of American golden plovers, which are passing through Ohio on another marathon migration, from their winter homes in South America to nesting grounds on the arctic tundra. Visit Magee Marsh State Wildlife Area this time of year, and the trees along the boardwalk will be fairly dripping with the brightly colored feathers of thousands of migrating songbirds that congregate on Lake Erie’s southern shore before making the trip over Lake Erie. (More than 150 species of songbirds have been spotted here; you’re bound to see one.)
Not all pass through Ohio and move on. The Appalachian forests of southern Ohio are prime nesting grounds for the cerulean warbler and northern parula — birds that can be heard and, if you are lucky, seen in stream-side habitat along Scioto Brush Creek at The Nature Conservancy’s Edge of Appalachia Preserve.
In Your Own Back Yard
But you don’t always have to travel to benefit from the migration miracle. Hang a nectar feeder outside your back window and you may be blessed with a visit by a ruby-throated hummingbird. They may seem small and fragile, hovering in your backyard airspace, but they’ve flown to Ohio from wintering grounds in Central America — including a 500-mile non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico.
Miss it in the spring? There’ll be other chances in the fall, including a chance to see the monarch butterfly’s 3,000-mile, multi-generational migration back to winter roosting sites in Mexico. This is best experienced in autumn, when some have witnessed tens of thousands of the insects crossing Lake Erie.
Like the blooming of the woodland wildflowers, animal migrations are annual proof that despite changes wrought by man’s tinkering, nature’s clockwork still functions. As my colleague James Cole says, nature’s migrations are probably the most unifying natural phenomena in the world, breaking down the boundaries of states and countries and helping us to understand the natural history and conservation issues of people and places far away.
The birds are putting on a show for free. Plan your own road trip to go see it.
Josh Knights is Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Ohio program. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read more about The Nature Conservancy’s work at nature.org/ohio
More birding information can be obtained by visiting:
Appalachian Discovery Birding and Heritage Trail
Sportsmen’s Migratory Bird Center (Magee Marsh)