Nature Notes

Neotropical Migrants

Zachary "Zach" Channic, one of the Restoration Management Assistants at Kankakee Sands

Zachary Channic, the author of this month's Nature Notes, is a 2013 graduate from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign majoring in Integrative Biology. He is a Restoration Management Assistant for The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands project. He hopes to continue with his interests in identification and taxonomy, land stewardship, plant biology, and ornithology.

Near the end of the summer in the Midwest, you might have noticed there being far less bird activity than there was in spring. Then as fall came around, you noticed different birds starting to appear. What you have witnessed was the activity of the neotropical migrants.

Neotropical migrants are birds that travel long distances between their winter home in the tropics and their summer home in North America. Some birds like the sandhill crane migrate but not as far south as the tropics, so they are not considered neotropical migrants. Not all birds migrate—some species reside in their home range for the entire year. Examples of birds that do not migrate are robins and mourning doves. These birds live all of their life in one home location because that location can provide for them nesting, feeding, mating, and everything else needed.

Migrants on the other hand require multiple home locations to fulfill all of their needs. Typically migratory birds require a winter location in the south for feeding and a summer location in the north for breeding. An extreme example of this is the Arctic tern, who makes its flight from the south pole to the north pole and back each year. Arctic terns typically migrate over open waters or along ocean shores, but could be seen inland around the Great Lakes area.

A neotropical migrant that could be seen in your backyard is the ruby-throated hummingbird. Each February and October this tiny bird flies the entire Gulf of Mexico nonstop in just under 24 hours. Between these months, the bird works its way north as the plants they feed nectar from begin to flower. When the flowers start to wither away, the hummingbird turns around and heads back to its tropical winter home.

Many neotropical migrants prefer wooded areas as resting spots. These include warblers, tanagers, and orioles. These types of birds can be seen passing through Indiana in the spring and again in the fall because their summer home is farther to the north in Canada.

Other neotropical migrants such as dickcissels are seen here in Indiana from spring through summer. This is because they use Midwestern grasslands as their summer home and do not need to travel further north.

There are nocturnal neotropical migrants as well such as whip-poor-wills, chuck-will’s-widows and nighthawks. In their home locations they are only active at night, but during migration they are in flight all hours of the day.

In fact, for a bird, migration usually means flying continuously without rest until it gets to its destination whether it is light or dark out. During nighttime flights, birds use the moon as a directional cue, but can easily get confused by bright lights from big cities. Fortunately, many cities including Chicago have initiated “Lights Out” programs that aim to reduce building lights during peak bird migration periods. This means that migrating birds can safely make their round trip flight each year and maybe even stop-over in your backyard along the way.

If you are interested in seeing birds migrating through Indiana, October is one of the busiest times of the fall migration. So grab your binoculars, head to Kankakee Sands or a nature preserve, and catch a glimpse of a neotropical migrant during its amazing several-thousand mile journey.

Birdwatching at Kankakee Sands can be wonderful experience, but for everyone’s safety, caution should be exercised at all times. If birding from roadways, please use your flashing lights and pull over to the side of the road. Whether in a car or on foot, birders must not impede traffic.


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