Flying North

Migratory birds are on the move and many are bound for the Boreal.
Red-winged Blackbird are early spring arrivals in Maine.

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After the wild swings of temperature that many of us endured this winter, it was sometimes hard to imagine that spring could really be in the cards. But there is no stopping the seasonal changes that come about from Earth’s rotation around the sun. The days get longer and warmer day by day. And the migrant birds return.

Here in Maine where I live, one of the earliest arrivals were the turkey vultures, their silver-toned underwings contrasting with the rest of their solid black plumage, as they glided by with wings held in a shallow V-shape. Some of the days in March when I first saw them would have been hard to consider very spring-like even for the eternally optimistic like me.  

But there they were.

Red-winged Blackbirds, always one of the earliest spring arrivals here in Maine, were spotted soon after the Turkey Vultures arrived. Day by day as March turned to April and then April to May the tide of returning migrant birds has gone from a trickle to a torrent. Sparrows, thrushes, warblers, flycatchers--spring really IS here and new arrivals are a daily occurrence for all of us across the U.S. and Canada.

At this time of year, I am reminded of the wonderful places even further north where spring bird arrivals are still some weeks or even month away. These are the places that so many of the birds that will pass through our backyards and parks in the coming weeks are headed to in order to raise their young. Thanks to Indigenous governments, a great many of these special places are in the midst of turning into new types of protected areas where no industrial activity will ever disturb them. Here are a few of the birds that are migrating to some of the amazing places in North America’s Boreal Forest for the summer. Keep an eye out for them!

Common Loon 

While the Common Loon is a familiar summer bird of many lakes across the northern-most U.S., this is actually the southernmost edge of their breeding range, which  extends across Canada through the Boreal Forest to the Arctic. In winter, Common Loons from Canada and Alaska come south to winter along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the U.S. south to Mexico. Beginning in March and April, those northern nesting loons begin heading back home to places like the Seal River Watershed of northern Manitoba. The twelve-million- acre, biodiversity-rich watershed contains coastal tundra, upland barren lands, boreal forest, and more than a thousand lakes. It supports forest birds, shorebirds, seabirds, and waterfowl like the Common Loon. It is also one of the few places where grizzly bears are returning. It has been proposed as a new Indigenous Protected Area by the Seal River Watershed Alliance—a group of Indigenous governments and communities in the region—to protect these biologically diverse habitats.

White-throated Sparrow 

Most White-throated Sparrows spend the winter in locations across the southeastern U.S. with a few that winter along the Pacific coast. The species is a common bird near my home in Maine during the summer where the sounds of its sweet whistled “Old-Sam-Peabody” song is a familiar refrain. But soon these little migrants will be heading north to their breeding range, which extends across most of Canada south of the Arctic. One of the special places in the Boreal Forest that supports large numbers of White-throated Sparrows is the North French River Watershed, a more than one million acre proposed new Indigenous Protected Area near the southern extent of James Bay. This region contains intact boreal forest and wetlands that provide important habitat for not only many migratory birds but also boreal caribou and brook trout. This initiative is being led by the Moose Cree First Nation.

Ring-necked Duck 

Occasionally a handful of these handsome peaky-headed ducks will spend the winter here in Maine, but most occur in the southern U.S. with scattered smaller numbers through Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. We have even seen a few in past years on Aruba, just off the coast of South America. Ring-necks are also one of the early duck migrants with new arrivals showing up in late February and continuing through March and April. Their breeding range extends from the northeastern U.S. across the millions of acres of wetlands of the Boreal Forest of Canada and into eastern Alaska. One of their important nesting areas is in the Saskatchewan River Delta of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It is one of the largest inland freshwater deltas in the world and an important waterfowl breeding area including for Ring-necked Ducks. It also supports other migratory bird species, as well as lynx, black bears, moose, and elk. Protection of the more than two-million-acre delta is being led by the Cumberland House Cree Nation.

Golden-crowned Sparrow 

If you live in the Pacific northwest or California, you may recognize the distinctive descending three-notes of the Golden-crowned Sparrow’s song. These handsome songbirds are commonly seen in shrubby lowlands and weedy fields along the edges of towns and cities during winter months. But as the temperatures start to warm, they soon vanish to spend their summers in their northern breeding grounds—a range that extends from British Columbia to Alaska. Golden-crowned Sparrows are among the estimated 22 million breeding birds that are supported by a new proposed Indigenous Protected Area in the Yukon. A critical habitat for caribou, these 11 million acres contain boreal forest, peatlands, lakes, and hundreds of miles of undammed rivers and streams. Protection efforts are being led by the Ross River Dena Council.  


This year, as we watch the birds of spring pass by our windows on their grand northward migration, let’s take a moment to think of where they are headed— special places that are being protected and stewarded by the Indigenous governments and peoples, the strongest models with recipricol designations by provincial/territorial/federal governments, across one of the largest and most intact forest ecosystems left on the planet—the Boreal Forest of Canada.