On a beautiful late spring day as my son and I drove down a winding country road toward my house, an indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea or finch) flew across the road in front of us. “Look at that deep blue color!” I pronounced.
But Will wasn’t that impressed, until I told him how far that little fellow had traveled to breed and nest at his summer home. He had journeyed to Kentucky from as far south as northern South America. Even more amazing is how he finds his way back year after year. Experiments have led many ornithologists to believe that indigo buntings use the stars at night to navigate. For an animal other than human, that’s just downright incredible to me.
Dozens of species of songbirds use Kentucky as their summer nesting sites, including colorful birds like the scarlet tanager. They are called “neo-tropical migrants,” and many of them fly thousands of miles to the same forest every year for their entire life-span. They travel these distances for the food sources available in our neck of the woods during breeding season—food sources that may not be available during the summer months in Central or South America.
Biologist Zeb Weese, with the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund, led a nine-year study in the forest of Natural Bridge State Resort Park to learn more about these long-distance fliers. Biologists set up nets in the forest so thin we humans would not see them if we didn’t know they were there. The nets were checked several times a day for unsuspecting songbirds that had flown into them. They then safely removed the birds, recorded information such as species identification, sex, and approximate age, and banded the birds if they didn’t already have a band from previous work. In this study and others like it, scientists want to know how habitat losses on both ends of the journey are affecting populations.
I joined Weese for a day in this dense forest to participate in the study and to hopefully see a neo-tropical migrant up close. As we made our way from one empty net to the next, I made sure I stayed behind Weese out of fear I might walk right into a net without seeing it. Then, just as I had hoped, Weese spotted a hooded warbler (Setophaga citrina) caught in one of the nets. Within minutes the intense concentration in his face became apparent as he ever so delicately removed the little bird from the net to prevent injury. He then gently banded the bird with a pair of needle nose pliers, opened his hand, and let the bird fly into the forest, quickly disappearing from sight.
I wished the hooded warbler a safe journey, if you can say that to a little bird. His mysterious ability to cross the heavens and know exactly where he is going is astounding to me. Hopefully this newly banded hooded warbler will safely return to his chosen home for years to come.
• Learn all you can about neo-tropical migrants and other songbirds before you take up birdwatching in the field. It helps to know what you’re looking for.
• Don’t flip through pages of a field guide as soon as you spot the bird, or it may be long gone when you look up again. Instead, watch the bird and listen to its calls, then record what you have observed.
• Bring a good pair of binoculars.
• Check out the Kentucky Ornithological Society online at www.biology.eku.edu/kos.