It's the Sun's fault!: How the fire in the sky sends life south in the winter | Natural World | Bend | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon
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It's the Sun's fault!: How the fire in the sky sends life south in the winter 

How the fire in the sky sends life south in the winter.

This is the time of year when birds of a feather flock together. As proof of that statement, not too long ago I spotted a large flock of birds flying out of the Whychus Creek area east of Sisters early in the morning and returning just before sundown.

My first thought was Red-winged Blackbirds, as the Deschutes Basin Land Trust's Camp Polk Preserve wetland in that area produces a goodly population of redwings each year. However, to be sure, I took a good look.

Sure enough, right at 5:57 a.m., here they came. Not redwings, but hundreds of starlings and Brewer's blackbirds flew over my head on their way south. I followed them to the junction of the Sisters/Redmond highway at Camp Polk Road and watched as they disbursed in several directions.

A bunch of the starlings went east in the direction of Fryrear Road (probably to the transfer station to see what they could scrounge up). Another group sailed over into the Cloverdale Road area, and a large flock of starlings and blackbirds continued east alongside Highway 26. I watched as the birds settled into the fields and began foraging, probably feasting on dead (as in frozen) grasshoppers, other insects, plus seeds from both cultivated crops and infernal weeds.

This is the time of year that most birds begin to gather up into large flocks. Quail around Central Oregon have raised many youngsters that gather into huge coveys. While quail are "resident" birds, others, such a blackbirds, robins, warblers, waterfowl and such are migratory.

While I was observing the blackbirds and starlings out near Camp Polk, I also saw hundreds of swallows swooping over a pond near the highway, tanking up on emerging insects. As soon as the swallows had fueled up, they started on their migratory flight to California and other points south. Then I heard (with the aid of my new hearing instruments) a flock of about 50 robins settling into the trees along Cloverdale Road, all a-twitter about their upcoming voyage to California.

If you want to see another exciting aspect of bird migration, spend a day at the Forest Service Green Ridge Fire Lookout on the Metolius, you'll see hundreds of hawks sailing by on their journey to the warmer latitudes to the south. Migration time is one of great abundance and timing. The starlings and blackbirds I watched coming out of the trees along Whychus Creek; all the robins gathering up; swallows on the wing and hawks soaring past the lookout are all driven by one of the most powerful objects in our system of life: The sun.

The angle of the sun related to the surface of the Earth, plus the duration of sunlight are two factors that trigger the movements and activities of all life on the earth - even you and me and things in the oceans. (The human versions are known as "Snowbirds.") Whales, blackbirds, starlings, and other birds begin their mating ritual when sunlight reaches a specific zenith and duration of light. In spring, colorful feathers appear as the sun triggers hormones in a bird's body. The male American kestrel cannot help himself when he arrives back in Central Oregon from his winter home in the south. With sex on his mind, he has to go out and catch a lizard and dangle in front of a female kestrel - it's the sun's fault.

Mule deer make their annual migration between the Cascades to the High Desert because the sun tells them it is time to go. Contrary to Disney's Bambi, it's an old experienced doe that will lead her herd to and from wintering grounds. The bucks, bless their pointed little heads, have only one thing on their mind right now: making babies. That too is the sun's fault.

Huge flocks of waterfowl are leaving the northern latitudes for wintering grounds in the south, among them snow geese that will fly over us from Siberia to Sacramento. If you find yourself in New Mexico, and would like to see a sight you'll never forget, stop at Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and watch the whooping and sandhill cranes, along with tens of thousands of yellow-headed blackbirds - so many of them their screeching will hurt your ears.

Soon, the robins that raised babies in our backyards will be gone, most to Central California. The robins that take their place and pig out on our juniper berries - some to the point of a big belly-ache (due to lack of water) - are from Washington, Canada and other points north, all driven on the journey by our magnificent sun.

So, please take down your hummingbird feeders and send our feathered jewels off to their wintering grounds as well, they'll be a lot happier. And don't worry, they'll return when the sun tells them to.

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