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Ready for takeoff

Manitoba hosts many migratory birds, but few are as remarkable as the yellow warbler

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Light as a ball of fluff, the yellow warbler seems, well, an ordinary little bird.

It's song is almost comical: "Sweet, sweet, sweet. I'm so sweet."

There's nothing to suggest this tiny critter is about to set out on a migration that will put to shame a bald eagle or a Great Grey Owl -- both rock stars of the winged world. Weighing in at a mere 10 grams, the yellow warbler will probably be halfway to Mexico by the time you read this story. Its feat of flight is truly amazing -- easily 6,000 kilometres from Canada's northern boreal forests to the tropics in southern Mexico, down to northern South America.

That makes this bird pretty darn interesting to bird experts.

Paula Grieef, the resident naturalist at Oak Hammock Marsh, says she's held the bird in her hand and marvelled at its aerial prowess. "They're quite tiny and they feel like absolutely nothing at all, a handful of cotton balls, really."

Migratory birds can't fly non-stop. To survive their mammoth migrations, flocks lay over at the same feeding grounds every year, just as we pull in to favourite roadside rest stops. Since most songbirds fly at night, we rarely notice them.

These little birds order supersized meals.

If we ate like them, it would mean consuming the equivalent of 55 to 60 14-inch cheese pizzas during two to three days.

"That's how much these particular little birds are eating. It's phenomenal," Grieef said.

It's enough to make Cal Cuthbert wax poetic as he hits the highlights about the fall migration of the tiniest of songbirds.

"You look at something small like a warbler and you can hold it in the palm of your hand... and think of the stories that bird could tell you," said the conservation manager from his Ducks Unlimited desk in Brandon.

The black pole warbler flies the length of the eastern seaboard, then across the ocean to South America.

"It's nothing short of remarkable," Cuthbert said.

"These are the things I think about," he said, almost apologetically with a chuckle.

Cuthbert's far from alone in his fascination.

An average fall will see thousands of bird-lovers go to places such as Oak Hammock Marsh to watch the original snowbirds fly south.

Winnipeg's FortWhyte Alive, the Delta Marsh, Oak Hammock Marsh in Stonewall, Riding Mountain National Park and Whitewater Lake in southwestern Manitoba are probably the best sites for watching the miracle of migration.

Against skies black with wings, Oak Hammock sees birds in their thousands collect every fall. The marsh is one of the Mississippi Flyway's great staging grounds for all kinds of migratory birds.

"You'll frequently see birds stacking up in an area and it's not infrequent when a high pressure system comes in and you have strong north winds that they'll pick up, into the air, en masse," noted Bob Grant, the provincial manager with Ducks Unlimited. Shore birds with plodding names like the black-bellied plover will go the farthest, raising their young on the shores of Hudson Bay and wintering at land's end on the southern tip of South America.

Despite these flying feats, the Canada goose has become the poster bird for migration -- even though these fat birds with the hideous honk don't always migrate.

Geese, with their unmistakable V-shaped formations, have always been the last to leave and the first to return, marking our seasons like clockwork.

But retention ponds that stud suburbs and farmland that laces urban outskirts entice some geese to hang out year-round.

With milder winters, as long as there's open water and a ready food source, there's no reason for them to go, say scientists.

Manitoba is at the lip of the funnel for the Mississippi Flyway, making the province a bird paradise.

Google "Manitoba" and "migratory birds" and you'll quickly see how we're the Grand Central Station for the largest of the four major migration routes.

"We're kind of like the mall on the way south," explained Grant.

It's estimated as many as 40 per cent of all migratory birds in North America take the Mississippi Flyway.

"I'm tooting our own horn (again), but there are fantastic places to bird in Manitoba and there are so many local Manitobans who are not aware of what we have," said Cuthbert.

Yet for all that, there's a shadow over the future of these migrations.

Bird populations are in decline everywhere.

We've changed the course of river systems, altered watersheds, drained wetlands and thrown up concrete canyons and city scapes in the path of migratory birds.

In Manitoba alone, Ducks Unlimited is working to restore 3,000 marshes and wetlands -- a critical component in the agency's efforts to save Lake Winnipeg and to protect the role Manitoba plays in the annual migration of thousands of birds in North America, said Grant.

"We manage all the wetland projects in Manitoba," he said, adding, "We really promote that. It's key not only for water fowl but for everything else, including water quality and flood control."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2013 B5

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