The weird spring migration of 2016

You guys, we need to talk about migration this past spring – it was weird. More than one person has asked me if I though migration was strange or noticed that we didn’t have as many birds this year. And yes it was weird. 

At first I thought it was just me. I tend to travel to quite a few bird festivals in April and May but this year, I kept missing birds. The Biggest Week in North American Birding in northern Ohio is usually a 10-day affair of warblers dripping off the trees eight feet away from you. I only went the first weekend and the birds were sparse. After I left the floodgates opened for the second half of the festival and highlights included the rare Kirtland’s warbler and a curlew sandpiper that showed up an hour away. 

I headed to Homer, Alaska, for the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, which was rather devoid of shorebirds since the birds already had passed through. That’s not to say the festival wasn’t a grand old time. What I missed in dowitchers and godwits I more than gained in seabirds like rhinoceros auklet, common murre and pigeon guillemot.

Meanwhile I watched what my birding friends in Minnesota posted as a massive front hung out over the upper Midwest mostly blocking northward migrants and keeping them in a holding pattern (to the delight of birders in Illinois and Ohio.) Migrating birds are like bike riders, they don’t really enjoy pushing forward head on into strong winds. They will bide their time until the wind shifts to push them north.

When the winds finally turned favorable, most of the warblers took flight and as if flung from a slingshot bypassed Minnesota and Wisconsin and went right into Canada. There were some strange surprises like a pair of yellow-throated warblers hanging out at Gold Medal Park in downtown Minneapolis. Then, just when we though migration has passed us by and that we were lucky to have had a glimpse of a handful of chestnut-sided warblers, a huge and final push finally broke through on May 24 delivering loads of nighthawks, flycatchers, and a few odd ball warblers like Cerulean warbler and blackpoll warbler. 

This is not a sign of the end of migration. This is sometimes what happens. Birds depend on weather systems in spring that provide winds from the south, pushing them north. This year, the weather systems were dominated by north winds causing birds to stay south longer and to flyover the northern states with the south winds finally hit. I think its part of the gamble that we enjoy with migration. Most years it’s magical and birds everywhere. And some years it’s drips and drabs making us appreciate the boom years all the more. 

Categories: Import, Sharon Stiteler

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