Winged holidaymakers

This post is also available in: Dutch.

Going on vacation in a foreign country. Some people do this at least three times a year and others have never been off the island in their entire life. Fans of traveling pack their suitcases, and with their passport in hand they board a plane to leave for unknown and exciting destinations. Without the invention of the aircraft it would have been a lot harder for residents of a 444 square kilometer island to pay a visit to our neighbors overseas like North America and Europe. The world probably would have looked quite different. However, there are inhabitants of this world that do not need inventions like an airplane to travel to faraway places. They can do that completely on their own. They travel distances beyond our imagination.

African mass migrations

Africa is known for these migrants. Those of you who have seen documentaries on television about the wildlife on the Savannah have certainly seen images of large amounts of antelope, elephants, giraffes and other giants of the African continent. At certain times the animals travel in large numbers to other places when food and water are getting scarce. Through the seasons there is a constant coming and going of these large groups that continue to travel in order to stay alive and reproduce. In Africa, water supply and associated food supply is the decisive factor for animals to migrate. Despite this knowledge, we still do not know what drives these animals from one moment to another to start moving ‘en masse’ to greener pastures.

This bird is a Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica). It's recovering in Leon's hand from a crash into our car, but survived the incident without injury. These swallows fly from North America toward the South American continent, and do cross the Caribbean. Many individuals do not survive this trip. These birds appear twice a year on the island. In April during the spring migration in which the animals fly back home from their 'vacation' country and in September / October while the animals are on their way in search of better food locations.

Birds – super travelers!

Migrations occur on all continents, and in most cases this is triggered by food shortages. All kinds of animals do migrate: mammals such as elephants and giraffes are already mentioned, insects such as locusts, reptiles such as turtles who do this mainly to travel back to the high quality beaches where they hatched from an egg, and birds such as geese and storks. Birds are the most awesome travelers among the animals. Birds can travel unimaginable distances, mainly from cold areas to warmer, nutrient-rich regions in the world. The distances they travel can range from ‘only’ the distance between Venezuela to Curacao to the enormous distance from the North to the South Pole and vice versa, as some petrels do. As mentioned  earlier, migrants are looking for areas where they can get food to survive during the periods that their ‘homeland’ can no longer provide enough food because of seasonal colder weather or drought. These conditions occur both in countries above and below the equator. Therefore migrants migrate in different directions.

Visitors to Curaçao

Curaçao gets winged visitors from different latitudes, including North America and Argentina. Usually, our island is not the intended final destination. Tired birds that accidentally encounter the Island during their journey consider it a welcome stop-over location, especially when the rainy season has just begun and there is enough fresh water to drink and sufficient food to resupply their reserves. Often they only visit the island very briefly, as a snack paradise, before they continue their journey to their final destination. Some of them enjoy the Island sufficiently to extend their stay and linger until it’s time to fly back home.

The Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) will grow to a length of approximately 18 cm. Only part of the year its color is this nice red. In autumn, when the animals travel from North America to the south and might visit our island, they are greenish in color and the difference between females and males is difficult to determine. In South America the male changes his feathers in bright red with black wings and tail. This picture is of an unfortunate road kill victim.

Those of you who took a good look around during the past few months have been able to admire a number of winged guests, perhaps even without realizing how special some of those animals are. We have already discussed a few, such as the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and ducks.

The future for migrants

Long term international scientific investigations into the migration patterns has painted a nice picture of what the winged travelers are doing. Unfortunately, recent observations show that departure and arrival dates and routes are changing. What’s going on? The fear is, that global climate change is the culprit. We can only hope that the various species are adaptable, because otherwise the list of endangered and newly extinct species – which is becoming very long already because of the behavior of humankind – will only get longer.

About Michelle da Costa Gomez