Birds heading south on the Mississippi Flyway

For many of us the start of September means the return to school and the end of warm weather and summer vacation. But for many bird species the dawn of September marks just the beginning of their journey to a warmer climate as they migrate south along the Mississippi River Flyway towards their wintering grounds.

Most birds don’t have houses with radiators to cozy up to when the weather gets cold. Instead they spend the winter months in southern parts of the world where it doesn’t get as cold. Minnesota is in the northern region of the Flyway, a sort of highway for migrating birds that runs from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the birds you may see migrating south this fall will travel over 3000 miles to reach their wintering grounds in Mexico, Central and South America.

The Mississippi Flyway isn’t the only highway in the sky. There are three other large routes in North America; the Atlantic, the Central and the Pacific. All of these follow landforms such as coastlines or mountain ridges. The Mississippi Flyway, as the name implies, follows the Mississippi River Valley–it acts as a natural channel for birds making the lengthy trip through the middle of the continent. Birds use these flyways year after year because of the food and water sources they provide, and the lack of barriers such as deserts, mountains or large bodies of water along the way. Around 80 percent of the 650 bird species that nest in North America will migrate somewhere else and an estimated 325 bird species will use the Mississippi Flyway for their roundtrip.

Changes in day length and weather (particularly wind patterns) let birds know when to migrate. Different bird species use different methods of travel, some fly low and stop frequently to rest while others use wind currents to travel longer distances. Strong fliers and hunters like herons, birds of prey, swallows and finches usually migrate during the day while birds that prefer thick vegetation, like waterbirds, warblers and buntings usually migrate at night.

Because flyways are so important to bird migration it is critical that they are protected in every region. Habitat loss along a flyway could cost the lives of many migrating birds. This is one of many reasons why Minnesota works to preserve the land around the Mississippi. Water pollution along any stretch of the Mississippi River can also affect birds that depend on this water source for their migration.

Make sure to grab a pair of binoculars and get outside this month to say farewell to the birds that are making their way south. You can borrow a pair at the Carl Kroening Interpretive Center at North Mississippi Regional Park. It is a great place to observe birds along the tree lined river’s edge and the restored prairie. You can also stop inside the Kroening Interpretive Center to learn about bird identification and watch our bird feeders. One might see species of duck, raptors, sparrows and Canada geese migrating in Minnesota through September. Others like tundra swans and yellow-rumped warblers will wait until early November and eagles will stay along the Mississippi until it freezes over.

Don’t be too sad about our fleeing feathered friends. Goldfinches, juncos, nuthatches, owls and chickadees stay with us through the winter. Come spring, just as the ice melts and the trees start to get leaves, hundreds of bird species will be hitting the Mississippi flyway once again so they can fly back up north to their nesting grounds.

You can learn about birds and many other things at the Carl Kroening Interpretive Center for Free Family Fun in September. Every Saturday, from 1 to 4 p.m., Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Education staff will offer a nature-themed activity. Here is the calendar of events.

Saturday, September 3 – Insects on the Prairie: Use bugs nets, bug boxes and magnifying glasses to catch colorful bugs on the prairie. You’ll be amazed at the colorful life on the prairie. Saturday, September 10 – Nature Stories: Start inside for a nature story and head out into the park to see what you can find in the park. Saturday, September 17 – Focus on Birds: Build a bird feeder, make a pine cone feeder, watch birds at the feeders, use binoculars to watch birds along the trails. And Saturday, September 24 – Trees: Bark rubbing and leaf identification.