Ocean Currents

The birds in your backyard have probably visited the Gulf of Mexico, have you?

© lgooch Flickr stream

I’ve lived in the Gulf of Mexico region my entire life and have seen many natural events ranging from hurricanes to jubilees. But last week I experienced something completely new to me — a songbird fallout.

You may know many species of birds don’t hang out in the same place all year. Like people, they yearn for warmer climes during the cold winter months. Many species make a twice yearly migration, heading South in the fall and North in the spring in search of plentiful food, shelter and perhaps a special bird friend. As if they have a built-in roadmap, these birds travel using several corridors, or flyways, to criss-cross the hemisphere, many of which intersect the Gulf Coast. Abundant food sources, reliability of water, and favorable weather patterns make travel along these flyways as easy as flapping for 1,000 or more miles can be.

Sometimes when weather conditions aren’t particularly favorable for travel, birds stop in large numbers to rest. The Gulf is one of the first resting places for birds traveling north from their winter grounds in Latin America. When a large number of these birds stop to rest, it’s known as a fallout.

Last week I happened to be in Corpus Christi when one of these fallouts occurred. I was with several colleagues from Ocean Conservancy and one of our partner organizations, The Nature Conservancy, when we got a call about a fallout. With several pairs of binoculars and at least one bird guide among us, we took a detour to a bird sanctuary where the only sounds were the chirping of birds and our own excited chirping as we identified one species after another.

Magnolia Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Baltimore Oriole…on and on we went for an hour or so, passing the binoculars. I am still very new to birding, but even the folks who have been birding for years were blown away by the wonderful sight of songbirds everywhere we turned.

Things got even more interesting when a Western coachwhip snake slithered into a watering hole where birds were bathing and splashing. We watched with baited breath to see whether the snake was going to get both a bath and a snack, but it simply lay in the water a few minutes and then scooted back into the brush, leaving all feathers intact. As far as days go, it was pretty close to perfect. And it was a reminder of how critical restoration of the Gulf ecosystem is to the entire country. It’s not just the people and animals who live along the Gulf who rely on it for survival.

The migratory nature of many bird species means that for populations to thrive, they need healthy habitat all the way along the flyway. Even though birds may only land for a few hours to rest and eat, the Gulf region is critical to many species’ survival. Just as you wouldn’t expect to walk from Central America to Canada without stopping for food and rest, our birds need the haven of the Gulf Coast on their long journeys. So the next time you see a warbler at your feeder, consider just how important the Gulf of Mexico is to those backyard feathered friends and get involved!

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