Notes from the Field

A Migration Mystery

April 12th, 2016 by Natalie Boelman, Mary McLean-Hely and Kottie Christie-Blick

This field blog is written for a very special group of people – elementary school children who are curious and eager to learn about Earth and the animals we humans share it with! While I’m getting ready to head to the field, I wanted to give kids like you some background information that should help you understand the upcoming series of blog posts I’ll send from northern Alberta, Canada. I asked my colleague Mary McLean-Hely, who is a friend and expert curriculum developer, to write the article below for elementary school kids just like you – I hope the information is both interesting, and even a little fun! –Natalie Boelman, ABoVE researcher with Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Columbia University

A space robin mascot for our Migration Mystery. Drawing by Nicole Krikun.

A space robin mascot for our Migration Mystery. Drawing by Nicole Krikun.

Traffic Jam

Have you ever left on a trip during a school break only to get stuck on the highway with what seems like millions of other people? Well imagine hitting the road with three billion people! That’s about half of the people on Earth!

That’s also how many birds travel, or migrate, each spring from all over North American to the arctic and boreal regions in Canada and Alaska. Some populations of American Robins are among these three billion birds.

Bug Buffet

Why do the American Robins travel north in the spring? The tundra and boreal (or northern) forests near the poles are cooler and provide great conditions for robins to mate and raise families. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet of plant life and insects! There are countless mosquitoes that fill the air in big, gray, buzzing, bug clouds. Robins feast on them! They also like spiders, beetles, seeds and berries, which are plentiful. Yum!

In addition, the summer days are very long and provide the busy birds time to find a mate, make a nest, and take care of their eggs and baby robins. There are not a lot of predators, or animals who feed on robins, providing a safe place to raise their chicks.

Although the individual days are long, the breeding season is short. During the short time, birds have to feed their chicks as much as they can with protein-rich insects and spiders. They also have to fatten themselves up as they will need the energy to fly south.

The start of cold winter temperatures tells the birds to start their fall migration. The birds and their young hit the road again flying south to warmer regions, like New York or California, for the winter. It’s kind of like millions of people heading home at the end of summer vacation. We’ll be learning and telling you more about their birdie vacation as it happens, so stay tuned.


Robins migrate between northern and southern regions of North America

Climate Change and a Migration Mystery
Recently, the climate in the polar regions has changed. Scientists think it may affect the migration pattern and habits of the American Robin but they aren’t sure how. It’s a migration mystery!

There are many scientists all over the world studying the changes in the climate in the polar regions. With the information they gather, they learn about how climate change affects plants and animals living near the polar regions.

Together with other scientists, I’m studying the environment, growth of plant and bug life, and other animals in the bird’s habitat. With this information, we will learn how the changing climate affects the birds and other animals, as well as plant life. We’ll be able to make predictions about what may happen in the future for the migrating birds.


Dr. Natalie Boelman

Come Fly with Me!
My team and I are currently en route to visit the boreal forest near the Town of Slave Lake in Alberta, Canada, and they will be taking a new piece of technology. We have tiny Global Positioning System (GPS) devices that we will put on the birds. The GPS device is a radio system that uses signals from satellites to tell you where you are and to give you directions to other places. It works like the navigation in your car or on the maps on a smart phone. It sends a signal about where the bird is the same way a phone sends a signal about where you are. Then, it shows where the bird is on a bird map app.

But how do you catch a little robin without hurting it? Sing it a song! We will attract the birds by playing bird songs. When the birds come, we will catch them in large, soft nets. Next, we will carefully and gently place the GPS devices on the birds. Finally, we’ll set the birds free. The robins will probably be a little scared but they’ll quickly recover and continue on their way. If all goes well, the GPS devices will send data about where the birds are. Our team will use this data to see the routes the birds take as they continue their migration. In this way, these tiny birds will help scientists like us understand big changes facing the world.


An American Robin – without a GPS backpack (Credit: USFWS)

Over the next ten days, I will bring you along on this adventure to Alberta so you can see how we’ll be working to solve the Migration Mystery of the American Robin! I hope you’ll check in every couple of days to see what we’re up to. I’ll do my best to post pictures and short videos so you can see things in action, and meet the members of my field team and the birds we catch. In fact, a group of smart and curious 4th and 5th graders at Cottage Lane Elementary in Blauvelt, New York (where my daughter goes to school) has chosen some great names for the birds, so I’ll introduce you to each of them as we catch and attach GPS tags to them.

To get yourself in good shape for understanding my series of blog posts from Alberta, I suggest you spend a few minutes going through this set of slides I’ve prepared for you! I hope you will find them fun and interesting:

If you want to learn more about American Robins, I also suggest checking out these websites: and Also, if you feel like some musical entertainment, here’s one of my favorite Raffi songs about robins:

While you’re looking through all this stuff, I’ll go pack my bag so I’m ready to get in the car and head to Slave Lake, Alberta. See you back here in a couple of days!

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6 Responses to “A Migration Mystery”

  1. s.melvin says:

    what is going to happen ..when the birds eat the zirka mosquito,since the zirka is a manmade ,disaster.

  2. Kylee says:

    I am looking forward to tracking our bird. I love the technology these days because we can track moving things! I bet that a long time ago they didn’t know that this was going to be how it was like!

  3. Mrs. Suttons Class says:

    Our class would like to know how you made the net and why you use that particular net? Where did you get the GPS Unit.

  4. Natalie boelman says:

    So we didn’t make the net, it’s called a mist net and you can buy them at special stores that sell that sort of thing. We bought ours online. We are using one that has holes that are big enough so that when a bird the size of a robin flies into it, it gets a little bit stuck so it can’t escape. It’s very soft and fine so it doesn’t hurt the birds at all – they just get a little bit tangled. We bought the mini GPS units from a company that makes them in Ontario, Canada. The company’s name is Lotek. Good questions!

  5. siena says:

    I know that you have to wear a suit to keep the mosquito but is there one place where they are the most.

  6. Mikey says:

    Do the birds ever struggle when you try to put the GPS on them?