Winter migrants face a daunting commute to a habitat in decline | ISLAND WILDLIFE

A grosbeak enjoys a meal of seeds while receiving care at the West Sound Wildlife Shelter.  - Dottie Tison photo
A grosbeak enjoys a meal of seeds while receiving care at the West Sound Wildlife Shelter.
— image credit: Dottie Tison photo

A few nights ago, my husband and I got to talking about vacation plans.

He was dreaming big. Costa Rica! Ecuador! Hawaii! I nodded along, imagining the heat of the sun working its way into my bones. Ah, sun.

But then I thought about our 1-year-old, the child who wails on any car ride that’s longer than a half hour, the boy who refuses to sleep anywhere but in his crib. Kol was clearly thinking about the same thing.

“Hmm,” he said. “Maybe we’re grounded for the next few years.”

Grounded indeed. Thank goodness we aren’t migratory birds. Those guys, like the young phalarope we had in recently, have to make their appointed departure time — or else.

The little phalarope (a long-legged shore bird) was found on the ferry, not yet able to fly. We fed it and gave it a safe place to stay until it perfected its flight skills, just in time for the big trip south.

In this area, we have more than 150 bird species, about 50 of which leave us each fall for warmer southern climates. These sunshine lovers include songbirds like flycatchers, vireos, warblers and grosbeaks.

Thousands of shorebirds, raptors, and waterfowl migrate south each year.

And about another 50 species, known as boreal migrants, come to our area for the winter. Loons, scaups, teals, grebes, and numerous other birds spend their summers in Canada but retreat to Puget Sound for the cooler winter months.

The Pacific Flyway, a broad swath of sky extending from northern Alaska to Central America, is one of the most popular paths for birds heading south at this time of year.

Kitsap County happens to be right in the heart of the Pacific Flyway, making our area not only a popular destination for many birds, but also a critical resting point for birds travelling between more extreme latitudes. In fact, the National Audubon Society just named Bainbridge Island’s Fort Ward Park, Poulsbo’s Fish Park, and Point No Point as key local sites for migrating birds.

While many, many bird species migrate, few like to travel in quite the same way. Some fly in groups, others go solo. Raptors and water birds tend to migrate at high altitudes (3,000 feet and higher) while songbirds generally fly lower.  Some, like swallows, travel by day, snatching up snacks of bugs as they go.

But most birds choose to travel at night, avoiding predators and keeping cool during their marathon flights. They also use the stars for navigation.

All migratory birds are specially built for the job with bigger chest muscles, longer wings, and the ability to fly at a high altitude. They have more red blood cells which makes their blood more oxygen-rich. And they not only have super-efficient lungs, they also have multiple air sacs that keep them constantly supplied with fresh air.

No matter how they like to fly, all birds have to bulk up before the big trip. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center says that, in human terms, their pre-flight weight gain is like a 150-pound person bulking up to 300 pounds — by gaining 15 pounds of pure fat each day.

Then, during the flight, this 300-pound person works so hard they lose 1.8 pounds per hour. 1.8 pounds per hour. That’s some serious cardio.

Over the past several decades, migratory birds have been on the decline. That’s mostly due to a loss of habitat, both in their southern wintering grounds and also along the route.  Sites like Fort Ward and Point No Point are critical to migrating birds, and we can help them by keeping these areas available and litter free.

This year, as my husband and I remain grounded by a 1-year-old, I’ll try to have a little more appreciation for how easy it will be to travel once he’s old enough.

Sure there are airports to endure and arrangements to make. But no one has ever asked me to burn two pounds an hour keeping the plane in the air. Or to snatch bugs out of midair. That would be an in-flight snack worth complaining about.

Elsa Watson is the development coordinator for the West Sound Wildlife Shelter.

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