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Research into migration of Pemberton songbird reveals astonishing journey

State-of-the art trackers used to map the veeries surprising route south
VEERY NICE Every fall the veery travels more than 14,000 kilometres — from its summer home in the Pemberton valley to the jungles of the Amazon rainforest. photo submitted

Every fall a songbird known as the veery travels over 14,000 kilometres — from its summer home in the Pemberton valley to the jungles of the Amazon rainforest.

"Your readers would probably have heard it rather than seen it," said Dr. Keith Hobson, a biology professor at Western University who recently concluded a study on the veeries' migration patterns.

The robin-sized songbird is two-toned, with a brown back, and a lighter-coloured spotted front.

It's a pretty bird, with a distinctive whistle that got its name from the cascade of "veer" notes that make up its ethereal, reedy song.

Veeries largely feed on insects, and Pemberton Valley's riverbanks are an ideal environment. They are home to bottomland cottonwood forests, which are rife with food.

The birds arrive in May and leave in late August. "They have to breed and raise young and prepare for the long trek out again," said Hobson.

For years, scientists have known that the birds travel from Canada to the Amazon.

What hasn't been clear is the route they take. Some believed western veeries migrate directly south along the West Coast of the Americas.

But Hobson and his research partner, Kevin Kardynal, an employee of Environment and Climate Change Canada, found otherwise. The birds, they discovered, take a circuitous route.

During their fall migration, they go east over the coast, the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains. Then they cut south and eventually stop at the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, where they spend a week fattening up.

From there, they fly across the Gulf and the Caribbean Sea — a two-to-three-day journey — without rest. It's an extraordinary feat, especially for a small songbird.

The route mimics that of their eastern counterparts, explained Hobson.

Veeries winter across the Amazon rainforest, including in pockets as far south as Paraguay. The birds time their journey with apparent winds, allowing them to conserve energy. Their return flight is much faster than their flight down.

Hobson tracked the birds using state-of-the-art trackers. Weighing less than a kilogram, the devices measure time and light levels, which are then translated into latitude and longitude coordinates.

The information gives an accurate depiction of the birds' journey.

Yet unlike satellite trackers, which are too heavy to fasten to such a small bird, the trackers don't provide real-time updating.

So that means that Hobson had to attempt to track down the very same birds he fastened the trackers to the following summer.

"It's a bit of a risk," explained Hobson, who completed the task in the summer of 2016. "You have to hope that your bird hasn't gone very far."

Hobson's team retrieved around 50 per cent of the trackers, he said. Not bad — given the epic journey.

Veeries face major threats along the way, a big one being birds of prey.

North America's ever-expanding development is also problematic, making it challenging for the birds to find safe places to land and feed.

Hobson emphasizes the importance of guarding Pemberton's cottonwood bottomland forests. The forests grow in specific areas, in low-lying areas alongside rivers that sometimes flood.

The areas have traditionally been sought after by farmers, as they offer fertile ground.

"I think it's a bit of a neglected forest type," he explained. "It's definitely threatened with disappearing. We need to be concerned about that."

Certain human practices — like the widening of trails — threaten them. "B.C. has lots of mountains and forests, but not a lot of (cottonwood bottomland forests)," said Hobson.

On a personal level, Hobson hopes that his findings will help engender a greater appreciation of the veery.

"Here's a bird that's returning each year and using this very special habitat. It's going all the way down to the Amazon, undergoing amazing journeys.

"I think there's a sense of awe and wonderment that we need to consider."

Having certainly felt it himself, Hobson ends the conversation with a philosophical observation.

"In our pace of life, we tend to forget that this stuff is going on right under our nose."

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