These are the harbingers of Spring. It is slow in coming this year, after a longer than usual, colder than normal winter, and snow staying on the ground since November. But the birds are coming back – Robins and Red-winged Blackbirds first – the nutty little chipmunks won’t be far behind, and early Spring flowers will delight us again as soon as the snow disappears and the frozen ground thaws. It never fails – nature reminds us every Spring of the eternal renewal of wildlife and the resiliency of living things.
Migratory birds are among nature’s most ambitious long-distance migrants. Their journeys are truly awe-inspiring. Here are some cool facts about migrating birds:
The Red Knot makes one of the longest yearly migrations of any bird from its Arctic breeding grounds in Northern Canada to Argentina, a distance of 15,000 km. A Red Knot may fly the same distance 13 times during its life, an amazing total of 195,000 km.
The Ruby-throated hummingbird is so tiny that it is sometimes mistaken for a moth. In earlier times, people could not believe that birds so small could travel all the way to South America and back every year, but they do.
The Whimbrel breeds in the Arctic, in Alaska, and along Hudson’s Bay. Distinct populations migrate along the Canadian coastline on their way to South America. Some Whimbrels travel non-stop for enormous distances while migrating.
Cedar Waxwings usually have a yellow tail tip, but some have been appearing in southeastern Canada since the 1960s with orange colouration instead. This is caused by the birds eating an introduced species of honeysuckle with red pigment as their tail feathers are growing.
The Mallard duck is perhaps the most familiar of all ducks. Often found in city ponds or parks, as well as other wetlands, Mallards are “dabbling ducks” and feed by tipping forward to graze on underwater plants. With the distinctive green head of the male and the recognizable “quack” of the female, Mallards are a familiar scene on the shores of our lakes.
90% of the birds that breed in Canada undertake the arduous task of migration. Shorebirds are the most accomplished travellers. For most birds, the journey takes three to four weeks. Many fly by night, because flying in daylight means exposure to predators and risk of dehydration, Day flyers are able to relate to the moving position of the earth relative to the sun. Night flyers navigate by the stars – and frequently get off course on cloudy nights. There is evidence that some birds make use of the earth`s magnetic fields. Other birds, for instance geese, learn the routes from their parents as they travel in families. And cuckoos, which are abandoned by their parents, find their way unaided by genetic route-finding skills, like Monarch butterflies.
Brown Eastern Chipmunks roam the edges of deciduous woodlands and can often be seen holding acorns and pine cones in their front paws and stuffing their cheeks with seeds. Their tawny-coloured and black-striped Western cousins are the Least Chipmunks, the smallest kind of squirrel in Canada. A confirmed nibbler, its diet includes acorns, berries, seeds, grasses, and small invertebrates. Both types are master hoarders and maintain meticulously managed food stores.
As the days lengthen and temperatures rise, many wildflowers burst forth to greet the arrival of Spring. The first is Skunk Cabbage, melting a hole through the last remnant of snow. The flower buds form the previous Fall and lie dormant until early Spring. When flowering is finished, the curled-up, cabbage-like leaves unfurl and enlarge. Coltsfoot, often mistaken for Dandelion, appear on sandy slopes, scillas sprout around trees, and by early April, Hepatica arrive, followed by Bloodroot, Blue Cohosh, blue and yellow violets and Trout Lilies. Marsh Marigold, Toothwort and Wild Ginger follow in early May, and by mid-May, the beautiful Columbines and the first Mayapples make their appearance. That is also the time when Ontario’s provincial (and protected) Trillium occurs in hardwood forests south of the Canadian Shield. Finally, in late May and early June, we will see Canada Mayflowers, False Solomon`s Seal, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Clintonia, and delicate-looking seven-petalled Starflowers in mixed and coniferous woods throughout Ontario, along with Yellow Lady`s Slippers and other orchids. It is a smorgasbord of Spring plants that greets us every year at this time.
Special days and events this season
April 6 – 12 is National Wildlife Week, a time to celebrate the beauty of nature.
April 22 is Earth Day.
May 10 is International Migratory Bird Day.
May 22 is the International Day of Biodiversity.
June 1 – 7 is Canadian Environment Week, and June 5 is the World Environment Day.
June 8 – 14 is Rivers to Oceans Week, starting with Canadian Rivers Day on June 8.
In early April, Snow Geese arrive in the St.Lawrence region, the final staging for their migration to Arctic breeding grounds.
In mid-April, the breeding season begins for Beluga Whales. Females breed about once every three years, producing a single calf.
In late April, calving season is in full swing for Muskoxen, despite deep snow and frigid temperature in their homeland. It will last into June.
Enjoy the Spring and reconnect with nature. Happy hiking, S.G.
Sources: Bird Studies Canada, Canadian Wildlife Federation, Nature Canada, Ontario Nature, the Green Book (Gahbauer), and field notes. See also www.migrationresearch.org for more data on bird migration.