(HOST) When commentator Ted Levin tries to imagine a time – anytime – a season, a month, a week, perhaps even a day during the course of the year when birds are not migrating over Vermont, he can’t.
(LEVIN) Near my home in the Connecticut River Valley bald eagles arrive in December and hunt dark leads of water in an otherwise frozen river. They search for fish or goldeneyes and common mergansers, which themselves appear between October and January, depending on the severity of the winter.
When the river unlocks in March, the eagles and ducks leave. By then, the skyways belong to red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures and the riverine marshes bubble with blackbirds.
By mid-June, as the last blackpole warbler passes north up the valley, bluebirds and robins are nesting for the second time, and yellow warblers and barn swallows are sitting on eggs. Black billed-cuckoos won’t appear until July or August, whenever fuzzy caterpillars are abundant. And by then, several species of Arctic-nesting shorebirds – Hudsonian godwits, pectoral sandpipers and lesser golden plovers, to mention a few – have already begun their long flight back to South America.
Spring and fall are certainly the bipolar peaks of migration, when the continent swarms with more than five billion wayfaring birds. One autumn night several years ago, radar picked up a flight of 12 million songbirds over Cape Cod, and during a single day, nearly a million hawks have been counted as they pass above the narrow coastal plain of Veracruz, Mexico.
The word migration, derived from the Latin migrare, means to go from one place to another. The authors of the Old Testament knew this and repeatedly mention the flights of hawks and eagles out of Eurasia that were bottlenecked by the Red Sea and the Mediterranean and directed over the Holy Land. So did Aristotle, who believed, in winter, small birds flew to the moon, or buried themselves in the mud, or hitched rides south on backs of geese and cranes.
It’s not the cold that drives birds out of Vermont in winter. They leave because, if they didn’t, they’d starve. Rivers and lakes freeze. Insects and frogs and small mammals hibernate. Flowers go to seed, and the seeds lie buried beneath the snow.
Bird migration evolved over millions of years, a manifestation of great climatic patterns. Although very predictable, the routes are not, after all, written in stone. In the early years of the 20th century, rafts of thousands of Canada geese wintered in the marshes of coastal Florida. No more. Today, they rarely move farther south than the Carolinas.
It’s early April. Vermont has begun to open up. Days are lengthening, snow melting, marshes flooding. Birds that wintered in the Southeast – robin, woodcock, song sparrow, redwing, grackle – these arrive first. Eventually, birds that wintered in the Neotropics appear. And collectively, all the migrants stitch together the far flung reaches of the New World, connecting the sides of Mt. Mansfield to the jungles of Hispanola, the rafters of our neighbor’s dairy barn to the pampas of Argentina.
This is Ted Levin of Coyote Hollow in Thetford Ctr.
Ted Levin is a writer and photographer and winner of the 2004 Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.