Sunday, September 23, 2018

Getting Out

Welcome back: May 16 Eau Claire event intended to educate, celebrate return of migratory birds

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    The indigo bunting is one of the brightly colored birds that migrate to and from Wisconsin each year.

    Contributed photo

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    Participation is usually busy at the Henry’s Roost Circle overlooking Dell’s Pond in Eau Claire, one of five locations that are part of the annual Welcome Back Bird Day in the city intended to celebrate the return of migrating birds.

    Contributed photo

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    The Braun’s Bay circle off Half Moon Lake is one of the original gathering sites for Welcome Back Bird Day.

    Contributed photo

What: Welcome Back Bird Day. 

When: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Where: Five locations throughout Eau Claire. 

Cost: Free. 

Information: gaylordnelsonaudubon.org/​wbbd.  

In Germany, the word for welcome is willkommen. In Spain, Mexico or Chile, it’s bienvenido. And in Swahili, karibu.

In May in Wisconsin we say “happy landings.” That’s because millions of migrant birds have just touched down in our state.

They’ve been plodding their way north — from places as remote as Patagonia, at the distal tip of Argentina — since March. And now they’re home. 

They’ve come all that long way, in some cases as far as 1,600 miles, to nest in forests and prairies and even yards across the state.

To commemorate the annual hejira of migratory birds, from their non-breeding grounds to the “Birdy State” each spring, we here in the Chippewa Valley have fashioned a special celebration. We call it Welcome Back Bird Day.

Welcome Back Bird Day is scheduled for 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday. As far as I can discern, there’s nothing like it anywhere else on the planet. 

While birding festivals have grown in popularity, most revolve around speakers, programs and field trips. 

The WBBD event is based upon the concept of a “big sit” in which participants designate a circle 15 feet in diameter and spend the day counting birds while remaining within the confines of that drawn circle. 

In Eau Claire, we’ve taken that idea and, well, sat with it. 

Instead of asking people to trudge into the wood in search of airborne critters, we’ve designated not one but five circles at various sites in town, and have invited people to stop by at their leisure to watch for any birds that might be around, and to learn more about birds, migration, and bird conservation.

The five stationary circles — at Braun’s Bay in Carson Park, at Altoona’s River Prairie, on the bridge at Boyd Park over the Eau Claire River, at a tiny park overlooking Dell’s Pond where Ruby and Lokken lanes meet and along the Chippewa River Bike Trail — will be manned throughout the day by dozens of nature lovers who are adept at identifying many varieties of birds by sight and sound.

Many birds

What kind of birds are we talking about? The variety is most impressive.

Most migrants that arrive in May are neotropical migrants, or songbirds that cross the Gulf of Mexico and then bounce their way northward. Many of these migrant songbirds are brightly colored — green and gold and orange warblers, Baltimore orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers — but their number also includes wrens, vireos, swifts, sparrows, flycatchers, and cuckoos.

If you’ve never had the good fortune to see a Cape May, Blackburnian, or bay-breasted warbler in the “feather,” you have arguably lived a life of “pigment poverty.” Orioles are so stunning that prolonged exposure to their orange plumage may cause blindness to other important household tasks. Likewise, an eyeful of scarlet tanager will turn anyone into an instant bird lover. 

Wild birds are alluring, but it takes a bit of effort to catch one in a binoculars or spotting scope. To garner the rewards of nature’s beauty and diversity, one must venture forth at the peak of spring, at least as far as an established circle in a scenic part of Eau Claire, hosted by a friendly birder.

Wisconsin home

This year’s event is the fifth annual Welcome Back Bird Day. The community-specific celebration of International Migratory Bird Day is sponsored by the University of Wisconsin biology department, Just Local Food, Pet Food Plus, Beaver Creek Reserve’s Citizen Science Center and the Gaylord Nelson Audubon Society, a required element of Eau Claire’s annual “Bird City” certification. There are currently 101 Bird Cities, including Eau Claire and Menomonie, in the state. 

All five WBBD circles will be active and open Wednesday. Expert birders will answer questions about birds, bird migration, bird anatomy and bird behavior. 

Bird identification books will be available at each location, but interested drop-ins should bring along their own binoculars to better appreciate the birds present. 

In previous years, as many as 102 bird species have been identified by event participants, although the number of birds encountered depends heavily upon weather conditions and the whims of creatures who are piloted by arcane biological engines. 

Even the best of ornithologists can only guess at how birds navigate such distances and arrive, yearly, in the same place they started from. Who are we to question how: we are left to exclaim “wow!”

Once a year, wild birds return to the Chippewa Valley because that’s where they were born and raised themselves. This is as much their home as it is ours and has been for the hundreds of thousands of years that bird migration has existed. 

Birds travel long and extremely difficult distances just to reunite with good habitat in a place called Wisconsin. A warm welcome back party just seems like the neighborly thing to do.

Betchkal is a bird expert, videographer and writer who lives in Eau Claire.


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