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  • Helen Kohl

Birds gotta fly…south!

Parry Sound Nature Club presenter explains bird migration.

When David Bree, naturalist and former natural heritage leader at Ontario’s Presqu’ile Provincial Park, was young the migration of Monarch Butterflies were still not understood. In highschool during 1975, he was fascinated to learn that the millions of Ontario monarch butterflies we see every summer fly thousands of miles every year to winter in a few small mountain peaks in Mexico. That knowledge, he says, “helped fuel my fire to be a naturalist.”

People who live close to the land have long known about the movement of animals, he says, because they needed to know when birds and other creatures were are found to be hunted. But the full study of migration—the seasonal movement of living creatures to find resources—could only begin once scientists could develop trackers small enough to put onto migrating species.

It was Canadian naturalists Fred and Nora Urquhart who came up with the idea of tagging monarch butterflies across Canada every summer. They and a team of researchers could only begin in 1952—when grocery stickers were light enough and sticky enough to affix to a butterfly wing. More than 20 years later, monarchs, including those with tags, were ultimately discovered wintering in Mexico.

Banding of birds began much earlier, in the early 1900s, when bands light enough to affix to birds’ legs were developed.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has maintained control of bird banding throughout North America since 1920, consolidating knowledge of where our birds migrate, the birds health, sex, and age. This has given huge insights into population dynamics and fitness of individuals. Today, some 1.2 million birds annually are banded; about 10 per cent of these are spotted again and their location added to the USGS database.

Today’s banded birds wear trackers that satellites can read. Albatrosses were the first birds to wear satellite trackers in 1989, explains Bree, because “they’re big birds, and no one knew where they went. Satellite trackers then weighed about as much as two warblers. You couldn’t stick them on a small bird.”

Since then, satellite trackers have shrunk enough for use on the smallest hummingbird. And tiny geolocators on trackers provide latitude and longitude where they are retrieved.

On the ground, the Motus Wildlife Tracking System (, an international collaborative research network, operates radio telemetry towers that will record an observation whenever a banded creature goes by. The Georgian Bay Mnidoo Gamii Biosphere has facilitated the installation of seven such towers along the coast of Georgian Bay, to supplement others that had already been found on the coast.

Want to see migration in action? Go to one of Ontario’s stop-over sites. Presqu’ile Provincial Park, for instance, hosts spring waterfowl in March, spring warblers in May, and shorebirds in late May and mid-August to mid-September.

Or go online to see bird migration paths, known Flyways. Parry Sound is on the arm of the Mississippi Flyway—one of four north-south migration paths (the others are the Atlantic, Central, Pacific). The website eBird provides amazing weekly “abundance maps” of bird locations.

Or take a picture of any bird you spot with a band on its leg, and submit it to the USGS website. Not only does this help with research but you also get to know where the bird was banded, what sex it is, and approximately how old! Bree submitted a picture of a yellow semipalmated sandpiper in Presqu’ile last spring, and learned it had been banded in Surinam the year before.

Thanks to David Bree, former natural heritage leader at Ontario’s Presqu’ile Provincial Park, for his Here and Gone presentation to the Parry Sound Nature Club.

The next presentation, The Natural History of Hummingbirds, is on February 15th, at 7:00pm EST.


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