World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) takes place on the second Saturday of every May and October, which means this weekend sees the first day dedicated to this event in 2023, on Saturday 13th of May; similarly at the height of fall migration, the event is repeated on the 14th of October. This is your chance to join us and thousands of others around the world in learning about these species, how we affect their existence, and what we can do to further it.
Now in its 17th year, WMBD continues to unite people from all around the world in their love and passion for birds who traverse the globe as part of their life cycle. In 2005 the Secretariat of the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) in collaboration with the Secretariat of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) joined forces and declared the weekend of April 8th – 9th 2006 as the world’s first global event, attended by artists, politicians, businesses, scientists and many more besides, all looking to a common goal of preserving and caring for the world’s migratory birds.
The beautiful artwork on the poster accompanying this year’s WMBD event depicts several species who rely on water habitats for every part of their lives, such as wetlands and oceans, but also those we may not immediately consider, such as riverine forests, or along streams and next to ponds.
Understanding how water aids these birds on their arduous journeys between their breeding and wintering grounds is essential to ensuring they are kept safe, every step of the way, and not just where they end up.
Water in its many forms
Most of us learn in school that 71% of our planet is covered in water and our oceans hold about 97% of all water on earth. There is also the water in the atmosphere, in rivers, lakes and the ice caps, and in the ground as soil moisture – not to mention the water in you, me and the dog barking across the street.
Water is just about the most vital resource there is, and yet our attitude towards it over the years has led to some devastating and sometimes irreversible situations. Human activities such as dam construction, water extraction, and pollution are having untold consequences, which is why this year’s WMBD is drawing attention to the vital need to protect these habitats.
We all know plants need water to thrive, but few of us go on to consider the myriad of events linked to a single flowering plant, instead just focussing on the vibrancy of verdant life. Flowers attract insects – billions of them. Insects are essential food for thousands of species of birds from the swallows, martins and swifts whose diet is comprised of 99% flying insect, to songbirds like robins, thrushes, woodpeckers and wrens, warblers, sparrows, even seed- and grain-eating birds like finches will take insects to their young for that all-important protein as they grow.
It is estimated that insectivorous birds eat between 400 and 500 million tonnes of insects every year. There are now grave concerns that a catastrophic decline in insects is on the horizon, which of course means no food for the birds, as well as other devastating consequences such as pollination of the crops we need for our food. Water also sustains those plants that produce the carbohydrate-rich powerful elixir known as nectar, which itself is 80% water, vital to those whirring energy-consuming machines, hummingbirds, who in turn pollinate over 8,000 known species of plant.
The way of the water
Riverine or riparian forests are abundant throughout much of the world – forested habitats that contain some kind of body of water like streams or rivers but also marshland, swamps, small lakes and ponds. Long known to be home to thousands of resident birds, recent research has found that these unique habitats support huge numbers of migrants. Forest fragmentation through development is damaging all bird populations, but migrants who use these habitats as corridors on their journeys as well as final destinations appear to be coming off worst.
Studies have shown that the aquatic insects, i.e., those whose larvae mature in the water found there, are nutritionally superior to terrestrial insects, as they contain four to 34 times more omega-3 fatty acids. These tasty morsels are particularly important for migratory species in the flycatcher family. One of the earliest migrant warblers, the Louisiana Waterthrush, also nests right in the banks above moving freshwater in clear streams in mature forests.
Clear-cutting, grazing livestock and diverting water sources for human demand and crop irrigation is putting these habitats under an almost unbearable strain. Effective management of these forests is crucial to the survival of so many species.
The fisher king
Occupying a large space on the top left of this year’s WBMD poster is the Osprey, a species that looked certain to leave our lives forever as a result of illegal hunting, trapping, and most cruelly, secondary and direct poisoning via pesticides and polluted water. Up until the mid-20th century, ospreys were a common sight across lakes, rivers, lagoons, and oceans, with nesting pairs regularly spotted diving into the waters to seek out their main food source, fish.
But the almost frenzied widespread use of the now banned pesticide DDT after the Second World War, combined with extensive destruction from overdevelopment of land and consequent pollution of waterways led to a severe decline in available habitat and sustaining resources for these birds to live, eat and breed. Not least, the poison of DDT in the water was ingested by fish which were then taken to hatchlings to eat, if indeed they had survived at all due to thinning of their eggshells leading to biblical-proportion nest failures in the 60s and 70s.
But once DDT was banned, concerted efforts across the land took place in earnest to provide nesting sites wherever possible. Farmers long knew that these birds of prey, despite their size and hunting prowess, posed no threat to their livestock, and in the early part of the 20th century had encouraged ospreys to nest near their land as a form of deterrent for other predators. Unknown to them at the time, that was the perfect approach to conservation, and in the 1980s an abundance of nesting poles were erected in haste across nations near any inland or coastal body of water wherever possible.
Buoys and channel markers in the seas became prime sites too, kept under diligent watch by coastguards. Globally, ospreys started to flourish, and now their comeback is cited as one of the most impressive, concerted conservation efforts the world has seen.
Water is vital for everything on this dear and sacred planet, and we need to grasp the scale of how everything is affected by any changes in its presence. This WMBD, don’t forget you can also take part in Global Bird Day, another vital opportunity to submit any bird sightings you see in the name of citizen science. This weekend why not head out to some watery places near you and report what you see there. Conservationists and other scientists use this crucial data to gain a more thorough understanding of the state of the world’s bird populations to better assist them with any serious issues concerning their survival. Find out more here, happy birding!