A Most Exciting Time of Year: Neotropical BIrd Migration

In April, birds that have been wintering in Central and South America and southern states such as Florida are now flying north to areas of the US and Canada where they will breed.   In our region of Florida we get most of our migrants when they are blown here by westerly winds away from their major northerly migratory routes from Yucatan to the northern Gulf coast states such as Texas.  However some of these neotropical migrants make their way north by flying up from southern Florida or Mexico or flying directly across the ocean from South America.

Some local hotspots for migrants are Pinecraft Park in Sarasota, Ft Desoto Park in St Petersburg and Kiwanis Park in Pt Charlotte.   These tend to be areas of greenspace along the western FL coast, surrounded by human development.  In our yard on Manasota Key we have planted trees such as red, black and white mulberries and have existing strangler figs that all provide fruits that attract the hungry birds.  Fresh water in drips also is a great attractant.  We had our first migrants on April 11.

This male summer tanager is a brilliant red in comparison with his mate who is yellowish.  It is interesting that the males of this species retain their bright colors all year whereas the male scarlet tanager molts and loses its red plumage.  The tanagers are fruit eaters whereas the orchard oriole also likes nectar from flowers.  It will pierce the base of flowers such as the coral and Cape honeysuckles to obtain nectar with a sharp pointed bill.

The male indigo bunting is a knockout blue in breeding season and prefers seeds, especially from the clumps of fountain grass which we have planted.  This somewhat invasive exotic grass is preferred over grasses such as the native muhly which has smaller seeds.

One of the most sought-after warblers passing through is the Swainson’s, which is a camouflaged brownish color to blend in with the leaves where it forages.  This rarely seen bird was spotted by avid bird watchers at Pinecraft Park.

Shorebirds are also migrating and we found three solitary sandpipers at Pinecraft close to one another which is quite unusual.  Normally they live up to their name which is to remain alone.  These are heading to the far north in Canada to nest in trees in spruce bogs or muskeg.

So get outside and look for the feathered jewels which are passing thorough Florida on their annual migration from the tropics.  It is an amazing process and one which you can easily miss if you are not observant.  That red bird in your yard may not be a cardinal, but a scarlet or summer tanager!

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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