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Bird enthusiast speaks at Gays Mills Library
Geese on Gays Mills Slough
CANADA GEESE, resting on their journey south in the Gays Mills Slough, were the perfect sight to complement the fascinat-ing story told by retired Horicon Marsh Wildlife Biologist Bill Volkert about the mysteries and science of bird migration. Volkert made his presentation at a Friends of the Gays Mills Library event recently.

GAYS MILLS - Bill Volkert was the invited speaker at a presentation sponsored by the Friends of the Gays Mills Library on Friday, Oct. 18 at the Gays Mills Community Commerce Building. Volkert shared his knowledge of and enthusiasm for birds with about 25 interested citizens.

Volkert spent his career working as the DNR Naturalist at Horicon Marsh. Since retirement, Volkert and his wife have travelled far and wide in search of new and unusual species of birds. Volkert also travels to places such as the southern United States, and Central and South America where the birds commonly found in our area overwinter. His goal in these travels is to connect all the areas, which provide habitat to the birds in a common effort to preserve the species.

“The most critical thing related to the decline of bird populations is loss of habitat,” Volkert said. “Human development has the most capacity to threaten birds, but we also have great capacity to help them.”

Bird migration

In his presentation, Volkert discussed how the seasonal arrival and departure of birds is one way that people mark the changing of the seasons. Volkert explained that historically, natural philosophers offered various different explanations for why the birds would appear and disappear seasonally.

Commentaries from such well-known philosophers as Aristotle put forward theories such as transmutation or hibernation to account for the phenomenon. Transmutation involved the theory that a disappearing species of bird such as a robin, would transform into a species of bird that appeared in an area at approximately the same time. The theory of hibernation involved the idea that birds would find a place to sleep through the colder months of the year similar to a bear, and then wake up in the springtime.

Volkert explained that though modern science has found ways to learn more about the miracle of bird migration, there would, according to him, always remain an element of mystery about it. Scientists like Volkert use a variety of techniques to monitor the seasonal migrations of different bird species such as leg banding and outfitting birds with tiny transmitters that allow scientists to track their movements.

As to the question, “Why do birds migrate?” Volkert explained that the common theories of “it’s getting colder” or “the days are getting shorter” are not in fact the answers to the question. The answer is that the birds come and go according to the availability of the food that they eat. Conditions such as the seasonal die off of plants and insects, and the freezing of the water and the soil, are the real reasons that birds will undertake migration.

Birds that eat seeds or insects will return to an area, when the seeds and insects once again become available. Birds that require open water to find their food will leave when the water body freezes over. Birds that find their food in the soil, such as robins that eat worms, will leave when the soil becomes frozen and return when it thaws.

“Migrant birds always arrive and depart a given area in the same general order each year,” Volkert explained. “The schedule of arrivals and departures is always determined by the availability of food.”

Some birds don’t migrate because the sources of food they rely on are available all year. Birds such as doves, blue jays, gold finches, woodpeckers, wood hatches, and predator birds that eat rodents such as hawks, owls and eagles do not migrate.

Some of the birds that return earliest in the spring in our area are geese, redwing blackbirds, Sandhill cranes and the common loon. The robin, so often taken as a ‘sign of spring,’ is actually not the earliest bird to return because they have to wait for the soil to thaw before they will have a source of food.

Where do they go?

With the use of scientific methods such as leg banding or installation of tiny transmitters on species of birds that are large enough to accommodate them, scientist have been able to learn more about the annual migrations of different bird species.

“It is absolutely amazing to discover some of the distances these bird species are travelling in their migrations,” Volkert said. “For many of us, it is hard to imagine that these tiny birds would be able to fly thousands of miles, but they do.”

Volkert told one particularly impressive story of the Barred Tail Godwit, a large species of the sandpiper family. The bird will overwinter in New Zealand, and then in the spring, begin their annual migration to Alaska and Siberia. 

Using a transmitter, scientists have determined that their migration route is repeated in the same way year after year. From New Zealand, the bird will fly to Australia, then to the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia, and then on to Alaska and Siberia. In total, this is a journey of some 8,000 miles.

What is even more remarkable is their return journey, which scientists have learned, is an 8,000-mile non-stop flight across the open Pacific Ocean from Alaska and Siberia to New Zealand. This means that the birds fly for seven to nine days non-stop.

Volkert refers to the fall migration as the ‘silent procession.’ He explained that, whereas in spring, before the trees have leafed out, and the birds are wearing their bright springtime mating plumage, their arrival is very visible. He contrasted this with their departure in the fall.

“Migrating birds tend to fly at night so they can identify food sources and replenish their strength in the daylight,” Volkert explained. “In fall, along with moving at night, the foliage of the trees as well as their more drab plumage make their movements less visible.”

Protecting habitat

Volkert told event participants that there are currently 50 birds of ‘conservation concern’ in our area. The biggest threat to birds is increasing human development, which causes the birds’ habitat and food sources to dwindle. Volkert says that birds are remarkable in returning to exactly the same areas each year, with territories of competing species well developed.

“If birds fly away one year, and discover upon their return that the area where they spend the winter has been developed and their food source eliminated, it is not easy for them to adapt or to find another food source,” Volkert explained. “If they try to go into an adjoining area, chances are there will be some other species already inhabiting that area, and there will be competition.”

Volkert explained that not only is it important to ensure that the birds have food and habitat in their ultimate winter and summer destinations, but also along the stops on their migratory path. He made the analogy that humans who wanted to take a cross country trip wouldn’t get very far if all of a sudden all the gas stations along the way disappeared.

“If a bird flys and pushes themselves to the limit to get to one of the stops on their migration, and there is no food for them there, then it could mean that they won’t be able to survive or that they will burn up their reserves of energy to the point where they will be unable to reproduce,” Volkert explained. “For this reason, bird conservationists in North America have joined forces with those in Central and South America to take a combined approach to species protection.”

To this end, Volkert has worked to establish ties with bird conservationists at the other end of the migration for species common in our area. Together they work to try to create nature preserves, which will ensure habitat on both ends and along the migratory path for these species.

In particular, Volkert has established a relationship with scientists in Nicaragua who share his commitment to species and habitat preservation. Volkert has made 14 trips to Nicaragua in an effort to promote conservation and education programs for migratory and resident birds.  He and his wife Connie have also been leading birding tours to Nicaragua since 2014.  

Volkert has written a book about his work in Nicaragua, ‘Where to Watch Birds in Nicaragua,’ as well as many other books about his travels and work in other parts of the world. To find out more about Bill Volkert’s work and books, you can go to his website

Next Friends event

The Friends of the Gays Mills Library sponsors monthly movies and presentations. Their next event will take place on Friday, Nov. 15, at 6 p.m., with a showing of the film ‘Right to Harm.

‘Right to Harm’ is a take on the legislation passed in many states in the 1980s, ‘Right to Farm,’ which limits citizen’s rights to legal remedies for harm they believe they have suffered as a result of a farmer adopting the confinement model of animal agriculture. 

‘Right to Harm’ is a movie that tells the riveting stories of five rural communities, and the devastating public health impact factory farming has on many disadvantaged citizens throughout the United States. ‘Right to Harm’ was filmed across the country and chronicles the failures of state agencies to regulate industrial animal agriculture. Known formally as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – or CAFOs – these facilities produce millions of gallons of untreated waste that destroys the quality of life for nearby neighbors. 

The film documents the story about how affected citizens become fed up with the lack of regulation and band together to demand justice from their legislators.