The incredible journey
“We’ve got rocks and trees, and trees and rocks, and rocks and trees, and trees and rocks, and…rocks and trees, and trees and rocks, and water…in Canada.”
As I glanced through the car window to the distinctive sound of the Arrogant Worms over the speakers, I couldn’t help but laugh nervously. A vast, lonely landscape met my gaze, composed of…well, rocks, trees, and water. It appeared that the band had a point. Somehow, the song wasn’t making me feel any better.
Driving across Canada was something I’d always dreamed of. As a concept, it seemed romantic and adventurous — the perfect way to really get to know my own country. But as a reality, I was finding it a bit intimidating.
As I set off on my second day of driving, I wanted to be excited. The first day had been easy: I’d travelled from Kingston to Sudbury, and spent the night with a friend. But today was the real start of the adventure. Today, I’d be leaving the relative safety of roads I knew well and passing into territory that was unknown, at least to me. As I pointed my car west and hit the gas, I was more terrified than enthusiastic. Six thousand kilometres is a lot of road — especially when you’re driving alone.
The purpose of this epic journey was to get myself out to BC and begin my PhD research on the population of western bluebirds that breeds in BC’s Okanagan Valley. Although there are bluebirds (of one species or another) across the country, I was particularly interested in this population because of their migratory behaviour: the western bluebirds in the Okanagan are partial migrants. This means that while some birds migrate south in the fall, others hang around the Okanagan, gather into flocks and brave the harsh Canadian winter.
Ever since taking my first animal behaviour course as an undergraduate, I’ve been fascinated by avian migration. This fascination has shaped the last eight years of my life, informing my research interests as a graduate student.
Migration is a common phenomenon: in North America alone, every spring billions of individuals from more than 350 bird species embark on migratory journeys. Migration is everywhere, and each spring, as I hear the honks of returning Canada geese and the note the sudden chattering of chimney swifts soaring over Kingston, I’m tempted to call it ordinary.
But this common phenomenon is composed of extraordinary feats. As spring begins in the northern hemisphere, birds like the 25-gram northern wheatear set off into the unknown, often travelling thousands of kilometres north to their breeding sites. In the case of the wheatear, individuals wintering in sub-Saharan Africa brave the perils of crossing the Atlantic, ultimately covering approximately 14,000 kilometres to reach their breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic and Alaska.
Migration captures the imagination of scientists and the public alike. But what is it about these journeys that inspires and enchants us? That’s a question I’d never been able to answer satisfactorily, but as I faced the vast, lonely distances of my own incredible journey, the answer became clearer: migration is a triumphant story of overcoming many challenges.
To begin with, you must decide when to leave. For birds, timing of migration is affected by many things — from predator abundance to weather cues and individual condition — but it’s crucial that they get it right. This is especially true in the spring, when arriving too late on the breeding grounds can undermine the success of an individual’s breeding season, but arriving too early means possible encounters with severe weather events that are better avoided. For me, leaving too early meant spending a morning digging my car out of a pile of snow in a motel parking lot.
Of course, once you’ve decided to leave, it’s also very important to know where you’re going. Unfortunately for me, I’m one of the most directionally challenged people imaginable. Despite the fact that driving from Ontario to BC essentially involves following the Trans-Canada Highway west, my parents were actually placing bets on whether I’d end up in BC or Nova Scotia.
Luckily, I had help: before I embarked on my journey, my mother dragged me to the CAA to purchase a staggering number of maps. I ended up with a separate map for every Canadian province west of Quebec, a very long set of driving directions and a North American road atlas for good measure.
(Despite this plethora of directional aids, I can’t deny making the occasional U-turn on quiet parts of the Trans-Canada.)
Birds, of course, have to go it without the help of the CAA. Instead, they get their directional cues from a variety of sources: the sun, the stars, and the Earth’s magnetic field. Recent research also suggests that scent cues may play a role in guiding migrants to their destination. In fact, despite decades of study, we’re still learning new things about how birds manage to navigate the vast distances involved in migration.
Now on your way, you face another problem: finding places to stop. As I made my way across the country, I realized that Canada’s seemingly endless rocks, trees and water didn’t make that challenge easy to overcome. I quickly learned to appreciate the value of a good refueling point; preferably one with gas, clean washrooms, good coffee and food that was not packaged a few decades ago.
As every migrant knows, finding ideal stops as you navigate an unfamiliar world is not easy. You need to be able to quickly size up potential sites for their value. If you decide to stop, you need to quickly figure out what to eat and how to avoid being eaten yourself.
For me, the most important part of finding stops was learning to compromise. Under less than ideal circumstances, I decided, fresh food was optional. Even clean washrooms could be optional — after all, all those trees have to be good for something. Gas and good coffee, however, were non-negotiable.
Even when you finally reach your general destination, the challenges aren’t over. It’s important to know exactly where and when to stop. When I crossed the border from Alberta into BC, I cheered, pulled over and took a victory photo.
Little did I know that finding my new home in the Okanagan would involve more U-turns than the rest of my trip put together. My directions said, “Follow the highway around a curve and the driveway will be on your left.” Unfortunately, the highway in the Okanagan is nothing but curves. I think I drove past my new accommodations three times before finally focusing on the right curve, noticing the driveway and making the turn.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to stop driving. And of course, I had it easy. Unlike me, birds travel under their own power, at the mercy of the unpredictable (and often nasty) elements. I can’t even imagine the relief of finally reaching the Okanagan after a 6,000-kilometre hike!
During the course of my PhD, I made the drive to the Okanagan and back three separate times. Each journey brought its own adventures, trials and excitement. But the best part of them was gaining a more personal understanding of the ordinary, extraordinary phenomenon of migration.