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Migratory Birds, Bats and Butterflies
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The Mystery of Migration: Conserving Migratory Species

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by Scott Weidensaul

Forest Service

Scott Weidensaul is the author of more than two dozen book on natural history, including Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding

E very spring, the world pours through my backyard.Maybe not the whole world—just most of the Western Hemisphere. I can walk outside and find bits of the humid jungle of the Orinoco Basin or the Maya Mountains of Belize; the cool highlands of the Sierra Madre de Oriental or the elfin cloud forest of the eastern Andes. If I know where to look, I can find the windswept tundra of the Ungava Peninsula and the boggy muskeg of Newfoundland. On a single day, the Arctic coastal plain, the sandy beaches of the Carolinas, and the grasslands of the Argentine pampas may pay a visit.

What is Wings Across the America?
Through the Wings Across the Americas program, the Forest Service—National Forest System, State & Private Forestry, Research & Development and International Programs—works with a wide range of partners here in the United States and overseas to conserve habitats and populations of birds, bats, and butterflies.

Together, the partners support habitat conservation activities across landscapes, ownerships, and boundaries; assist in national and international assessments of conservation needs and opportunities; provide training opportunities for biologists, land managers, and administrators; and share knowledge about global conservation needs.

I’m speaking, of course, of the birds that crisscross the hemisphere, stitching the world together, linking distant and exotic lands at either ends of their epic migration routes, and weaving those strands through the dogwood thickets and fencerows of our small plot of land, here in the
mountains of eastern Pennsylvania.

Each spring morning is a journey of discovery on our one little acre; one day, I find a red-eyed vireo newly returned from the Amazon, heading north to the Adirondacks, or a wood thrush that spent the winter in the shadow of ancient temples in the forests of Guatemala, soon to nest again in the White Mountains. The next day, it’s a parula warbler that wintered in Jamaica bound for Maine, or an indigo bunting just back from southern Mexico, which will set up territory along our meadow.

Migration is the most astounding of all natural events (see the article by David King on page 3). It’s remarkable enough that a blackpoll warbler weighing less than half an ounce will fly
from the boreal forests of the Northwest Territories to the Amazon basin—but it will do so by traversing Canada west to east, departing Cape Cod on a blustery night and making a 90-hour, nonstop flight across the western Atlantic to Guyana or Venezuela.

And a dove-sized shorebird from Alaska, the bar-tailed godwit, puts even that feat to shame. Last year, using satellite technology, scientists followed a godwit that left Alaska and flew nonstop more than 7,000 miles across the entire Pacific to New Zealand—a journey that took 8 days.

Nor are there only birds awing and aloft. Monarch butterflies drift like confetti on the wind, but they navigate thousands of miles as deftly as any falcon (see the article by Janet Ekstrum and Karen Oberhauser on page 4). The large milkweed bugs that feed on the pale greenish seed pods of the milkweeds in our meadow will migrate to the Gulf Coast for the winter, then return in spring. Migratory tree bats of several species pass south on migrations only dimly understood (see the article by Dennis Krusac and Bob Locke on page 5). Dragonfly migrations bracket the continent—variegated meadowhawks from the Pacific Northwest that migrate southeast as far as the Florida Keys, blue dashers moving along the Atlantic coast, black saddlebags striking out across the Gulf of Mexico, green darners moving in swarms that can number in the millions moving south to—well, we’re really not sure.

Borders and boundaries mean nothing to winged migrants, and partnerships are needed on every scale to protect migratory habitat (see the article by Jim Chu, Michael Rizo, Margee Haines, and Guadalupe del Río Pasado on page 6). Americans spend tens of billions of dollars each year on bird-related activities such as hunting, photography, and birdwatching. Through the Duck Stamp alone, more than $700 million has been raised since 1934 and used to acquire more than 5 million acres of bird habitat on national wildlife refuges. This money would be wasted without complementary partnerships to protect habitat for migratory birds outside the United States.

Wings Across the Americas—the overarching Forest Service program for migratory species protection—mobilizes resources across its various departments, coordinating with partners to help protect breeding grounds, wintering areas, and flyway stopover points for migratory species. These partnerships reach across continents, connecting northern Michigan with the Bahamas (for Kirtland’s warbler) or Chicago with Michoacán, Mexico (for monarch butterfly), just to name a few.

Such partnerships hold the key to a future where children will still see birds flocking and dragonflies swarming and be able to wonder where they are going. Perhaps even then no one will know for sure. That’s part of the allure of migration, that whiff of mystery—not only how they do it, these small scraps of life borne up on the wind, but why. Whatever the answer, they carry us along with them. Look up. The world is passing by, if only we stop to notice.


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