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‘Wow Factor’: Public website reveals best picture yet of hundreds of bird migrations

The snowy owl’s piercing yellow eyes and deadly hunting skills amaze bird watchers in the American Midwest every winter.

Now, thanks to what has been heralded as the most comprehensive summary of migration patterns ever assembled, these birders can see where these raptors migrated from: the Seal River watershed in northern Manitoba.

“We didn’t know that,” said Jeff Wells of the National Audubon Society, which activated its online bird migration explorer on Thursday.

“We didn’t know that the owls that go to the Midwest filter through the Seal River.”

The Explorer, which combines millions of sightings of hundreds of bird species, is full of such connections linking countries and continents – and amazing discoveries.

That warbler in your backyard may be on its way from Alaska’s Bering Strait to the Amazon rainforest. This little shorebird in the quagmire down the road is capable of traversing all of the United States in a matter of days.

“There has never been so much compilation of migration tracking information in one place,” Wells said.

The Explorer is the result of four years of work and millions of dollars.

It uses over 500 peer-reviewed studies from 283 institutions. It is based on decades of bird banding data from organizations such as the Canadian Wildlife Service, as well as tracking data from hundreds of transceiver implanted birds.

It benefits from the contribution of states and provinces, half a dozen national governments, nine major environmental groups and several private companies. It aggregates millions of sightings from thousands of birdwatchers across the continent via the eBird online portal.

For each of the 458 species, users of the free public website can check where the bird they are looking at has been, where it is going and who is with it. They can see its conservation status and the threats it faces at which points along its migration route. Or they can look at the big picture and marvel at the winged rivers that cross continents.

Conservation planners can use it to identify critical habitats instead of leafing through academic papers and stalking colleagues for data.

“I did this for years,” Wells said. “You’re always breaking it all down and making big generalizations.

“It’s really revolutionary.”

But perhaps Explorer’s most important feature is the story it tells about connecting. Edmonton bird lovers will find that local avian friends travel as far as Peru; eight species travel between Toronto and Cuba each year.

Birds are one of the ways human activities in one place affect another far away place, said Stuart Mackenzie of Birds Canada.

“It highlights the complexity of the systems we are trying to understand and safeguard and the importance of connections. We cannot have a closed approach to conservation.

It will also allow planners to link different species.

“If 20 species are all affected by the same threat, we can tackle the threat once instead of 20 times,” Mackenzie said.

Then there’s just the sheer coolness of it, Mackenzie said.

“There’s also a big wow factor, which is incredibly engaging, like ‘My backyard is home to arctic birds – it takes my breath away! ”

“That level of commitment, even at the most basic level, is so critical when we’re trying to save our environment and our species.”

The tool also reveals information gaps, which is helpful for researchers looking to get the most out of their resources.

Even after a lifetime in bird science, Wells said, he learns something when he opens the Explorer.

“Every time I open it, there is something new. You can see your location’s links to the rest of the world.

The website is online at

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on September 15, 2022

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960


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