Story by Mike Smith, Washington resident and guest blogger.
Every spring, about mid-April, birds from Central and South America make an amazing migration to the forests of Missouri and other states. Collectively, these birds are referred to as the Neotropical songbirds. Many of them are brilliantly colored in blues, yellows, greens and reds, as you would expect of tropical birds.
I consider this migration one of the most dramatic things that happen every year, first, because of the migration itself. Coming from as far away as Brazil, the birds work their way up to the Yucatan Peninsula where they regain strength for the rest of their journey. Then, one evening, because they navigate by the stars, they lift off and begin a twenty-hour, nonstop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. Put yourself in the mind’s eye of one of these small birds, beating your wings across this open expanse of water. Exhaustion is a given, rest is not an option, so they continue pushing against the air, rhythmically, constantly, until a sliver of land shows on the horizon. By this time, some have dropped out, victims of the distance, others from storms. The rest arrive.
Having lost significant amounts of body weight, they rest and restore their strength. Soon they will catch southerly warm fronts that will aid them as they continue north.
The migration is only part of their feat. Their motivation and timing are of the essence. It begins with the trees. Trees produce different types of chemicals. These chemicals collect in the leaves, making them unpalatable to insects. But when new leaves first emerge from a leaf bud, they do not contain these chemicals in sufficient quantities to ward off insect attack. As a result, insects feast on this fresh new produce of spring.
Within a few weeks of these vulnerable new leaves emerging, the Neotropicals arrive. They have been motivated by these insects and finding a place to breed. Young mothers and babies need protein, and these leaf-eating insects provide it. In return, these birds protect the forests from defoliation. One could not exist without the other, and it’s all a product of endurance and timing.
Some of these birds can be found in the woods along Washington’s Riverfront Trail. One of my favorites is the Prothonotary Warbler. This golden yellow bird is as illusive as it is beautiful, but not uncommon. It can be located by its characteristic call. This strong “twseet” can often be heard near swampy, forested areas along the trail in the spring. Another interesting trait of this bird is that it is one of the only warblers to inhabit abandoned woodpecker holes, and it can be attracted to wooden nest boxes.
A person can live their entire life here and never experience the wonder of these small birds. Most of them are illusive. Seeing them usually takes patience, a pair of binoculars, and an ear for their calls, but is well worth the effort. In late summer, they repeat this journey in reverse. Those fortunate enough to make it, live off the sweet fruits of the jungle until it’s time to begin again.