(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — As migrants are boarded on planes during long-standing immigration disputes, as countries debate international trade and compare the values of their currency, and as people raise flags either in their front yards or on contested battlegrounds in eastern Europe, birds beat their wings through the air and pass over it all.
Tomorrow, Oct. 8, is World Migratory Bird Day for Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. That might not seem like it means much to the people of Erie, Pennsylvania, but there is at least one living creature that directly connects them all. It’s a red-eyed vireo — a smaller bird with olive-colored wings, a light belly, a gray cap of feathers on its head and, you guessed it, a red eye. They could be confused for any number of birds from a distance. Certainly, if they’re spotted somewhere in Erie, they likely wouldn’t jump out as anything from South America. They’re not like a sloth, an anteater or a capybara — those unique animals that seem so distant and foreign to Pennsylvanians.
They may not seem like they belong a continent away, but red-eyed vireos spend their winter in the Amazon Rainforest of South America. And they migrate to and through Erie for summer.
“We know that’s where they’re observed during the winters months because we have visual observations of that,” said Erie Bird Observatory Executive Director Sarah Sargent.
Erie Bird Observatory nets birds every migration (in the spring and in the fall each year). They attach a band around the birds and track the data. In 2017, a photo of an American Redstart in Brazil had a legible band from the Erie Bird Observatory.
On Sept. 2 of this year, staff from the Erie Bird Observatory attached a small radio transmitter onto the back of a red-eyed vireo. They then released the bird so it could continue its migration. Typically, bird with radio transmitters are tracked by local antennas as they travel, and once they’re out of range of the local array, the signal usually isn’t seen again.
“We assumed we would never hear from this particular bird again,” Sargent said.
See the red-eyed vireo release
On Oct. 4, the unexpected happened — the red-eyed vireo’s radio transmitter signal was picked up by a tower in Costa Rica. That’s 2,181 miles away. It was detected two more times in Costa Rica.
“This is not only a bird that weighed roughly the same as three U.S. quarters when we tagged it, but it is also a hatching year bird, meaning it’s on its very first migration ever,” a Facebook post from the Erie Bird Observatory said.
The radio transmitters emit an eight-digit alphanumeric identifier that’s unique and digitally encoded. Each of the antennas screen out static or interference, and a radio transmitter (which emits a signal every 10 seconds) must be picked up multiple times to be counted.
“It managed to evade all of the hazards,” Sargent said. There’s no way to know exactly what path the bird took to get from Presque Isle State Park to Costa Rica, but Sargent thinks the red-eyed vireo may have traveled inland and down to Florida where it then crossed the Gulf of Mexico. She said it’s likely the red-eyed vireo made landfall in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico but, again, there’s no way to know. “We had no hits on any of the radio antennas until it got to Costa Rica.”
The Costa Rican system was put in place only last year.
“A year ago, we wouldn’t have known this bird went through there,” Sargent said. “We’re really thrilled they got our bird.”
The research at Erie Bird Observatory is focused on what’s happening locally. They’re interested in the local movements of the birds. They want to know how the birds interact with the habitat near the coast, especially with the city encroaching on their habitat (as cities tend to do on coasts throughout the world, Sargent said).
“It’s just excited when we get a bird that’s that far away,” Sargent said.
The data is now being combined with an international database that tracks bird migration. The database is open to the public, searchable and available online. The red-eyed vireo soon will be included in that database.
The red-eyed vireo also can teach humans an important lesson.
“This is just another example of why we always say that birds are amazing,” said Laura-Marie Koitsch, banding programs manager with the Erie Bird Observatory. “With World Migratory Bird Day (established by the United Nations in 2006) being celebrated in the southern part of our hemisphere tomorrow, this particular individual is also a timely reminder of how birds in general are able to connect people all over the world with each other, with themselves, and with nature.”