Rare songbird makes migration pit stop at York’s Keele Campus

This spring, billions of tiny songbirds, some weighing as little as two loonies, are undertaking an arduous journey. These birds have left their wintering grounds in the tropics and are racing thousands of kilometres to their Canadian breeding grounds. Some, including rare species, are stopping at York University’s woodlots.

Migration is an energetically costly endeavour, even for these amazing creatures whose bodies are intricately designed for the physical demands of marathon flight.

During these journeys, birds require places where they can rest and refuel. Cities and urban areas may not seem like the most hospitable places for a migratory songbird to find a quick meal, but each spring and fall urban parks and woodlots throughout Toronto provide stopover habitat for a surprising variety of migratory birds.

The black throated blue warbler. Photo by Raffaele Camasta

Toronto is on a major migratory corridor and York University, with its green landscaping and several woodlots, has a lot to offer for a tired and hungry songbird. A visit to the Boyer Woodlot during spring migration brings new surprises each day. One day, it might be a bold and acrobatic black-throated blue warbler, practically back-flipping from branch to branch looking for unsuspecting spiders or caterpillars under leaves. The next, it might be a less bold and slightly more suspicious hermit thrush, poking through the soggy leaf litter in search of juicy worms.

On May 14, as part of a research practicum course, biology Professor Bridget Stutchbury in the Faculty of Science and a small group of undergraduate students and volunteers took to the Boyer Woodlot north of the Lumbers Building to learn how to catch wild birds.

“The woodlot is sort of a secret world, and once inside it’s easy to forget the huge campus that surrounds it,” said Stutchbury.

A male hooded warbler spotted in the Boyer Woodlot on York University’s Keele Campus. Photo by Raffaele Camasta

One of the volunteers, an avid bird watcher, heard the distinctive, emphatic “weeta weeta weet-eo” song of an unexpected bird: a hooded warbler. Male hooded warblers are striking, canary-yellow birds with a crisp black hood over their head and chin. In Ontario, they are quite rare and normally stop in the forests south of Waterloo.

Stutchbury, who has studied the hooded warbler for decades, later heard the telltale metallic “chip” call of the bird and was able to spot a female flicking her white tail open as she looked for insects. The male remained elusive, until later in the day when they returned to the woodlot and managed to snap a photo.

“It’s amazing that a hooded warbler showed up on campus and the best part is that my students were there to see it and share in the excitement,” said Stutchbury.

The spring rains have turned the Boyer Woodlot into what looks to us as a muddy, mucky mess. But to a migrating hooded warbler, it is a welcome oasis and a perfect pit stop.

By Lisa Horn, an MSc student in biology in the Stutchbury Lab

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