For Many Migratory Songbirds, Boreal Forests Are The Last Stop

Editor's Note: ABC Naturalist Bruce Beehler spent three months this spring traveling from the Gulf Coast to Canada, following along as songbirds migrated north to their breeding grounds. Back in June, he experienced the marvel of migration in Canada's boreal forest, breeding grounds for more than  300 bird species. Catch up on the journey as many birds now prepare to make their return trip south!

Canada's Menako Lakes comprise a chain of north country lakes in gently rolling boreal forest. In June, I was able to camp right on the lakeshore, where loons serenaded me each night and on cloudy days as well.

While kayaking the lake I encountered Bonaparte's and Herring Gulls, Red-breasted Mergansers, American Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, Bald Eagles, and even a cluster of six White Pelicans. A mix of aspens and conifers in the campground had singing Magnolia Warblers, Ovenbirds, and Philadelphia and Red-eyed Vireos.

Bonaparte's Gull, Bruce Beehler

Kayaking among the Menako Lakes revealed Bonaparte's Gulls, along with a host of other birds. Photo by Bruce Beehler

But these birds were few and far between. I biked every road or path I could in both mornings and evenings in search of my migrant friends, but the roadside forests were very quiet, even at dawn. It seemed as if there was more habitat than birds above 52 degrees North Latitude.

Menako Lake, Bruce Beehler

At Menako Lake, an abundance of habitat awaited migratory birds. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Birds of the Bog

Ovenbirds and Tennessee Warblers were there in fair numbers. Northern Waterthrushes sang in wet shoreline alder thickets on the Lake. An Orange-crowned Warbler called in some hip-high aspens. 

Meanwhile, the spruce bog birds presented a fun challenge. In three days I located both Black-backed Woodpecker and its rare cousin, the American Three-toed Woodpecker. In a spruce bog just north of the lake I heard the loud chattery notes of a Connecticut Warbler. That was a major find and another first for the trip — bringing my warbler count to 36. 

Connecticut Warbler, Bruce Beehler

I saw my first Connecticut Warbler of the journey! Photo by Bruce Beehler

Charismatic Forests

After five nights at Menako Lakes, I headed north to the Pipestone River, which flows into James Bay. I camped in forest where the river is broad and lake-like, in the most boreal setting yet. These are glorious forests with considerable charisma — pointed blue-green spires reaching up to the sky and springy sphagnum ground cover.

I spent most of my time either in boggy sites or hilly areas that held their moisture and thus support a predominance of white spruce. These patches of spruce forest were populated by Gray Jays, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Boreal Chickadees, Three-toed Woodpeckers, and a selection of wood warblers.

Three-toed Woodpecker, Bruce Beehler

The rare Three-toed Woodpecker lives in spruce bogs of Canada's boreal forests. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Except for the jays and kinglets, the breeders seemed very thinly distributed, with one or two exceptions. The biggest surprise was the apparent absence of two spruce-loving warblers — Bay-breasted and Cape May. Despite considerable effort, I could not locate either.

Close Encounters with Grouse

I had long wanted to get to know the elusive Spruce Grouse. In Pipestone, I had my chance: I found their scat littering the sandy entrance road to the campground, and on several occasions had close encounters with both sexes of this poorly known resident of spruce forests.

The female, on one occasion, allowed me to walk within five feet — too close to focus my telephoto lens. The males I encountered were more skittish. But one morning I found a grouse standing regally on a broad, gravel road, as if he were master of this lonely domain.

Spruce Grouse, Bruce Beehler

A male Spruce Grouse near the Pipestone River. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Anthem to Nature

Perhaps the most pleasing presence was Swainson's Thrush. This was particularly true at my Pipestone campsite, nestled in the spruces just uphill from the river. Several Swainson's Thrushes had established territories in the spruces, and their songs carrried through the forest, raising my spirits.

This thrush was the first to serenade me in the morning — often starting to sing well before 4 a.m. — and its ethereal notes sent me to sleep at night. The bird living behind my tent would sing almost continuously from 7:30 p.m. until after 10 — as the last light faded from the sky.

Let me tell you, there is nothing better then having Swainson's gentle song carry you to dreamland. From now on, the lovely music of Swainson's Thrush will be my private anthem to Nature in all its glory!

Final Destination

Without a doubt, the marquee migratory songbird up here was the Tennessee Warbler. The species was singing its staccato song in just about every patch that included at least a few spruces. It was gratifying to see a breeding warbler in good numbers.

Tennesee Warbler, Bruce Beehler

I saw Tennessee Warblers along my entire journey, from Texas to Canada. Photo by Bruce Beehler

This bird was the predominant passage migrant all along the route of my journey — from Texas up through the Mississippi Valley. At long last, it was clear: This boreal landscape is where they all were headed!

beehler-portrait-kaijende-much-reduced_bb-blog.jpgDr. Bruce Beehler, an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist, is a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. He has published 10 books and authored scores of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a "60 Minutes" piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea, where scores of new species were discovered.


"North with the Spring" was proudly sponsored by
American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.