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Baltimore Orioles Head South: One Rest Stop Along the Trail
John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Unpave the Way for Orioles
Bid them bon voyage, buen viaje and farewell, then prepare to greet their return next spring.

Satellite View of Last Night's Sky
Where do you think the best conditions for migration were last night? (
Click here for a current weather map showing wind direction and location of fronts.)

September 29, 1997
Each night while you sleep, millions of songbirds are quietly traveling under the cover of darkness, escaping from the north for the winter. In the spring, you're far more likely to hear them, singing the songs they're famous for. However, with the nesting season just complete, there are actually many more birds traveling now than any other time of year. Before you see them again next spring, they must complete 2 legs of their trip--and survive the winter months in between. It's not an easy task, and the first year of life is the most difficult. In fact, most songbirds don't live to see their first birthday.

As do all migratory birds, Orioles need habitat on the nesting grounds, wintering grounds and everywhere in between. Here's news from one refuge where Baltimore Orioles nest during the summer and rest during migration.

Baltimore Orioles are now migrating through the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, the fourth stop on our refuge hot spots tour. Each year Oriole migration lasts at the refuge from late August until mid-October, and people there know when to watch.

"As cold fronts move across eastern North America, they're sending waves of Orioles, along with warblers and other songbirds, on their way to wintering grounds in Mexico and Latin America," reports John Miller, who has been banding, counting and observing birds at the refuge for nearly 25 years. Miller watches the weather so he knows when to watch for the birds. As cold fronts pass, clear skies and north winds usually follow. These conditions are ideal for migration, allowing birds to travel with no risk of storms, the wind at their backs, and a clear view of the stars that help them find their way.

Where Do Baltimore Orioles Go for the Winter?

It took over 40 years to collect the data used to make this map. Each blue line connects the place where an Oriole was banded to the place it was later found.

To enlarge, click on face of map.) Courtesty of Alan Davenport, UFWS Office of Migratory Bird Management

To a songbird flying down the East Coast who happens to get tired over Philadelphia, the John Heinz refuge is a welcome oasis. Just imagine what it must be like for an Oriole to leave its summer home, and fly over thousands of houses and highways, shopping centers and parking lots all along the coastal states. This refuge is surrounded by the city, so must be a welcome sight.

From Philadelphia, an oriole will migrate another 1,000 miles over land. Then, if it opts for the direct route home, it will fly over the Gulf of Mexico in a single night, crossing 600 miles of open water. The full migration is done in stages. After approximately two weeks time, the Oriole will arrive in its winter home in the tropical and semi-tropical countries like Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, and Columbia. Here, the winter habitat is found in areas of scattered trees, forest edges and even cocoa and coffee plantations.

With many more people feeding birds these days, not all Baltimore Orioles will travel this far. Some stop and spend the winter in coastal areas of the southern United States from North Carolina to Florida. In these areas, they feed at bird feeders when their natural food supply of insects, nectar, and berries dwindles in the late fall. Orioles have even been known to come to hummingbird feeders in the winter months.

Sing and be Counted
In the early 1980's, populations of Baltimore Orioles were declining at a fairly rapid rate across their range. Now their populations are still declining, but much more gradually. Visit the U.S.G.S. Breeding Bird Survey office to learn how populations of songbirds are estimated. Perhaps you'll decide to help count them in your community.

A Refuge for Orioles
In recent years, John Miller and other bird watchers, have been seeing more Baltimore Orioles nesting at the Refuge than they had in the past, even though the overall population of Baltimore Orioles is declining. How can this be? John and the refuge staff think the refuge is like a magnet attracting Baltimore Orioles and other songbirds. As less and less habitat is available outside the refuge boundaries, they are moving onto to the refuge where they find food, shelter, and nesting space. Thus their number are increasing on the refuge while they decline elsewhere.

Hats off to John Miller
Thanks to Mr.Miller and other volunteers like him who have contributed hours of their time to bird banding over the years. Mr. Miller prefers the night shift at the Philladelphia airport where he works. This way, work doesn't interfere with early morning birdwatching hours.

More about the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge
This refuge is named after John Heinz, a member of the same family that created Heinz catsup. He was a Pennsylvania Senator and was known for support of conservation issues. The refuge was named for him after he was killed in a helicopter accident in the early 1990's.

But birds and other wildlife have the citizens of Philadelphia to thank for protecting the their habitat at Tinicum Marsh. Families that lived in the area rallied to protect the marshlands for wildlife. Originally 5,700 acres in size, the area was reduced to 1,200 acres and was threatened further by expansions of the Philadelphia airport, an extension of Interstate highway 95 and proposed landfills. In 1972, the U.S. Congress directed the Department of the Interior to purchase the wetlands and surrounding areas.

The name "Tinicum" means "Islands of the Marsh", a name given to the marsh by the Algonquin Indians who lived in this region of Pennsylvania.

The Next Journey South Update Will be Posted on October 6, 1997.