The roar of the falls was and still is the constant backdrop to birding Goat Island. Part of Niagara Falls State Park, the mature deciduous forest on this bit of land wedged between roaring cataracts acts as an important waypoint for migrating birds. As thousands of gulls and ducks dive and forage in the swift, cold waters of the Niagara River, high numbers of small birds feed on insects and berries in the rich vegetation on the island.
One May day in the distant 80s, the warm sun dappled the understory of the woods as newly arrived migrants sang from the maples and oaks. Magnolia Warblers flitting at the edge, dozens of Bay-breasted Warblers whispered from high above, the familiar summer sweet song of Yellow Warblers, Nashville and Tennessee Warblers seemingly competing to see who could sing the most staccato song. Baltimore Orioles playing their natural born flutes, grosbeaks doing the drunken robin waltz, a Scarlet Tanager adding its burry version to the natural, ancient birdsong mix.
Vireos were a constant, wood-pewees were also there, always there. On one of the more fateful, long past days of May on Goat Island, my 11 year old self heard a different song. Sort of like a Blackburnian but not quite, something new and there was another one or two responding. I crept through the morning forest, arm held in front to keep the spider webs at bay, walked on the soft ground of the trail towards the high-pitched, rising songs. Having listened to enough Blackburnian Warblers to recognize their songs, I had a strong suspicion about the identity of these new singers but then, just as now, seeing a new bird was believing.
Luckily for me, they kept on singing until I had arrived somewhere beneath them. I looked up into the green, trying to locate the naturally hidden birds. As with so many small birds, that meant staring up and into a mosaic of leaves and branches and waiting for movement, any hint of movement. If that seemed to have happened, the next step was automatically raising the bins to the eyes and getting them focused, all in a flash before the supposed bird moved one (because warblers work on a different, more fidgety schedule). On that particular birdy morning, after a bit of movement finally caught my eye, the next step brought me onto a small bird that had a dark, narrow breast band on white underparts.
The pattern could only mean one thing, a male Cerulean Warbler! Interested more in song than a foraging dance, my much awaited lifer let me admire it for well satisfied views. Even better, it was joined by other singing males, maybe 4, maybe even 6. Watching them sing and move in the high trees revealed bits of sky blue plumage that give the species its name. Over years of birding the beautiful woods of Goat island during May migration, that distant day was the only time I had seen several males and one of the very few days when I had seen any Ceruleans at all.
On that special day, as with any day when I am fortunate to see a migrating Cerulean, I wondered where they had come from. I wondered where they might be going. That far north in their range, away from known breeding grounds, we rarely saw that special bird. It was rare then and is even more rare today.
The reasons why Ceruleans have declined are fairly well known, these are royally plumaged birds with appropriate regal tastes and needs. They are birds of the tallest forests, the high canopy rulers of the magnificent floodplains, of where the sycamores are already old, where the oldest oaks may have been visited by the final generations of Passenger Pigeons. Since those same places also make wonderful farmland, tend to be easy to cut down, the realm of the Cerulean has been greatly diminished, conquered to the point of making this lovely little species “Near Threatened“.
Destruction of wintering habitat in the foothills of the Andes acts as additional assaults on the southern kingdoms of the Cerulean. Cutting of migration stop over sites in between are more flashpoints during the unconscious war against this small beautiful bird.
Knowing where Ceruleans go, where they stop during migration, tells us what these warblers need for survival and, therefore, the places we need to protect. But how on Earth can you follow the large scale movements of such a smidgeon of a bird, any small bird for that matter? The answer comes in the form of small transmitters that can be tracked by satellites.
Thanks to satellite tracking with MOTUS stations, crucial data have been gathered about the movements of dozens of migratory birds including Kirtland’s Warblers and Swainson’s Thrushes. Similar information for Cerulean warblers can help reveal insights about where they spend more time during migration and answer questions about where different breeding populations spend the winter. Since answering such questions is vital for effective conservation and protection of Cerulean Warblers, in conjunction with the Rainforest Biodiversity Group, on May 8th, local birding and conservation duo Ernesto Carman and Paz Irola will be doing a Birdathon to raise funds for Cerulean Warbler research.
By way of the Proyecto Cerulea, Ernesto and Paz have been a major help with Cerulean Warbler research and conservation for several years. Along with fellow birder Juan Diego Vargas, they have successfully organized Cerulean Warbler festivals, gathered much needed data, and banded a number of Ceruleans and other migrants. Over the past two years, in response to the need for tracking the movements of migratory birds through Costa Rica, they have worked hard to attain and install MOTUS stations and are now ready for the next crucial step; installing transmitters on Cerulean Warblers and other threatened species of migrants that they capture at the Las Brisas Reserve.
To help Ernesto and Paz gather important data for Cerulean Warblers and other threatened migrant birds, please consider donating to the 2021 RBG Bird-a-Thon. Rain or shine, it will take place May 8th (yes, Global Big Day, 2021!). Who knows, they may band a bird or two that come from your favorite birding spot. They might even catch a bird that ends up singing for another young birder in the timeless woods of Goat Island.
Although the donation page may be for “The Friends of the Great Green Macaw Inc”, this is just the official name for the Rainforest Biodiversity Group charity.