Something in the Air Tonight

There’s something in the air tonight—and it’s more than just a cool comfortable breeze.

(NOAA/National Weather Service image)

It’s a major nocturnal movement of southbound Neotropical birds.  At daybreak, expect a fallout of migrants, particularly songbirds, in forests and thickets throughout the region.   Warblers, vireos, flycatchers, thrushes, Scarlet Tanagers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks pass through in mid-September each year, so be on the lookout!

Early May Migration

National Weather Service radar showed a sizeable nocturnal flight of migrating birds early this morning.  Let’s go for a short stroll and see what’s around.

Radar returns from State College, Pennsylvania, display several bands of light rain and a massive flight of migrating birds.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Gray Catbird
After coming in on an overnight flight, Gray Catbirds were numerous at dawn this morning.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Black-and-white Warbler
Masses of Neotropical migrants are just beginning to arrive.  This Black-and-white Warbler was found feeding on insects in a Green Ash tree that, so far, has survived Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis) infestation.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Veery
The Veery is a Neotropical thrush that nests in understory vegetation on forested slopes in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Orchard Oriole
Orchard Orioles are here.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Baltimore Oriole
And Baltimore Orioles are here too.  Vibrant colors like these are what many observers find so wonderful about many of the Neotropical species.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Double-crested Cormorants
Not all migrants move at night.  While you’re out and about, keep an eye on the sky for diurnal fliers like these migrating Double-crested Cormorants, seen this morning a full ten miles east of the river.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Carolina Wren
While many birds are still working their way north to their breeding grounds, resident species like this Carolina Wren are already feeding young.  This one has collected a spider for its nestlings.

Big Flight Tonight

It looks like a really big flight of nocturnally migrating birds is underway tonight.  Returns from National Weather Service radar sites throughout the northeast are indicating liftoffs like this one around the station in State College, Pennsylvania.

(NOAA/National Weather Service image)

Conditions are ideal for a good fallout of Neotropical migrants at daybreak.  So get out there this weekend and see ’em before they’re gone.  Try thickets and forests where the rising sun provides good light for observing and warmth on the vegetation to get the bugs moving and birds feeding.

Happy Birding to all!

Big Flight Last Night

Birds on radar last evening.  A dense liftoff of nocturnal migrants is indicated at radar sites across the northeastern United States.  Rain showers can be seen in Virginia.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

Today’s arrivals—Neotropical migrants found in a streamside thicket in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed this morning…

Red-eyed Vireos nest in forests throughout the lower Susquehanna valley.
The Northern Waterthrush is a regularly occurring migrant that can be found in vegetated wetlands and along the backwaters of streams and rivers.  Despite its drab appearance, it is classified as one of our Neotropical warbler species.
The adult male American Redstart is unlike any other eastern warbler.  It is easily recognized.  Along the lower Susquehanna, redstarts nest in the dense understory of damp forests.
The first-spring male American Redstart is similar to the female, but usually shows black markings beginning to develop on the breast and face.  It is an energetic singer.
In its strikingly colorful plumage, the Magnolia Warbler is a classic Neotropical bird.  Locally, it is a regular migrant.
The Wilson’s Warbler (Cardellina pusilla) forages in lowland thickets during its migratory stopovers.  Riparian buffers along streams can provide critical habitat for this and other transient species.
Baltimore Orioles continue to trickle in, creating squabbles when they enter nesting territories established by birds that arrived earlier in the month.

The Layover

After nearly a full week of record-breaking cold, including two nights with a widespread freeze, warm weather has returned.  Today, for the first time this year, the temperature was above eighty degrees Fahrenheit throughout the lower Susquehanna region.  Not only can the growing season now resume, but the northward movement of Neotropical birds can again take flight—much to our delight.

A rainy day on Friday, May 8, preceded the arrival of a cold arctic air mass in the eastern United States.  It initiated a sustained layover for many migrating birds.

Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) in flocks comprised of as many as fifty birds gathered in weedy meadows and alfalfa fields for the week.
A Bobolink sheltering in a field of Sweet Vernal Grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) during the rain on Friday, May 8th.
Two of seven Solitary Sandpipers (Tringa solitaria) in a wet field on Friday, May 8.  Not-so-solitary after all.
Grounded by inclement weather, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) made visits to suburban bird feeders in the lower Susquehanna valley.  (Charles A. Fox image)

Freeze warnings were issued for five of the next six mornings.  The nocturnal flights of migrating birds, most of them consisting of Neotropical species by now, appeared to be impacted.  Even on clear moonlit nights, these birds wisely remained grounded.  Unlike the more hardy species that moved north during the preceding weeks, Neotropical birds rely heavily on insects as a food source.  For them, burning excessive energy by flying through cold air into areas that may be void of food upon arrival could be a death sentence.  So they wait.

A freeze warning was issued for Saturday morning, May 9, in the counties colored dark blue on the map.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
This radar image from 3:28 A.M. Saturday morning, May 9, indicates a minor movement of birds in the Great Plains, but there are no notable returns shown around weather radar sites in the freeze area, including the lower Susquehanna valley.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
To avoid the cold wind on Saturday, May 9, this Veery was staying low to the ground within a thicket of shrubs in the forest.
This Black-throated Blue Warbler avoided the treetops and spent time in the woodland understory.  He sang not a note.  With birds conserving energy for the cold night(s) ahead, it was uncharacteristically quiet for the second Saturday in May.
A secretive Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis) remained in a wetland thicket.
A Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) tucks his bill beneath a wing and fluffs-up to fight off the cold during a brief May 9th snow flurry.
In open country, gusty winds kept Eastern Kingbirds, a species of flycatcher, near the ground in search of the insects they need to sustain them.
Horned Larks are one of the few birds that attempt to scratch out an existence in cultivated fields.  The application of herbicides and the use of systemic insecticides (including neonicotinoids) eliminates nearly all weed seeds and insects in land subjected to high-intensity farming.  For most birds, including Neotropical migrants, cropland in the lower Susquehanna valley has become a dead zone.  Birds and other animals might visit, but they really don’t “live” there anymore.
Unable to find flying insects over upland fields during the cold snap, swallows concentrated over bodies of water to feed.  Some Tree Swallows may have abandoned their nests to survive this week’s cold.  Fragmentation of habitats in the lower Susquehanna valley reduces the abundance and diversity of natural food sources for wildlife.  For birds like swallows, events like late-season freezes, heat waves, or droughts can easily disrupt their limited food supply and cause brood failure.
For this Barn Swallow, attempting to hunt insects above the warm pavement of a roadway had fatal consequences.
Another freeze warning was issued for Sunday morning, May 10, in the counties colored dark blue on this map.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
This radar image from 4:58 A.M. Sunday morning, May 10, again indicates the absence of a flight of migrating birds in the area subjected to freezing temperatures.  Unlike migrants earlier in the season, the Neotropical species that move north during the May exodus appear unwilling to resume their trek during freezing weather.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
On Sunday evening, May 10, a liftoff of nocturnal migrants is indicated around radar sites along the Atlantic Coastal Plain and, to a lesser degree, in central Pennsylvania.  The approaching rain and yet another cold front quickly grounded this flight.
After a one day respite, yet another freeze warning was issued for Tuesday morning, May 12.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
And again, no flight in the freeze area.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
The freeze warning for Wednesday morning, May 13.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
And the nocturnal flight: heavy in the Mississippi valley and minimal in the freeze area.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
The freeze on Thursday morning, May 14.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
At 3:08 A.M. on May 14th, a flight is indicated streaming north through central Texas and dispersing into the eastern half of the United States, but not progressing into New England.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
The flight at eight minutes after midnight this morning.  Note the stormy cold front diving southeast across the upper Mississippi valley.  As is often the case, the concentration of migrating birds is densest in the warm air ahead of the front.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

Today throughout the lower Susquehanna region, bird songs again fill the air and it seems to be mid-May as we remember it.  The flights have resumed.

Indigo Bunting numbers are increasing as breeding populations arrive and migrants continue through.  Look for them in thickets along utility and railroad right-of-ways.
Common Yellowthroats and other colorful warblers are among the May migrants currently resuming their northward flights.
The echoes of the songs of tropical birds are beginning to fill the forests of the lower Susquehanna watershed.  The flute-like harmonies of the Wood Thrush are among the most impressive.
Ovenbirds are ground-nesting warblers with a surprisingly explosive song for their size.  Many arrived within the last two days to stake out a territory for breeding.  Listen for “teacher-teacher-teacher” emanating from a woodland near you.

Fallout in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed

Local birders enjoy going to the Atlantic coast of New Jersey and Delmarva in the winter.  The towns and beaches host far fewer people than birds, and many of the species seen are unlikely to be found anywhere else in the region.  Unusual rarities add to the excitement.

The regular seaside attraction in winter is the variety of diving ducks and similar water birds that feed in the ocean surf and in the saltwater bays.  Most of these birds breed in Canada and many stealthily cross over the landmass of the northeastern United States during their migrations.  If an inland birder wants to see these coastal specialties, a trip to the shore in winter or a much longer journey to Canada in the summer is normally necessary—unless there is a fallout.

Migrating birds can show up in strange places when a storm interrupts their flight.  Forest songbirds like thrushes and warblers frequently take temporary refuge in a wooded backyard or even in a city park when forced down by inclement weather.  Loons have been found in shopping center parking lots after mistaking the wet asphalt for a lake.  Fortunately though, loons, ducks, and other water birds usually find suitable ponds, lakes, and rivers as places of refuge when forced down.  For inland birders, a fallout like this can provide an opportunity to observe these coastal species close to home.

Not so coincidentally, it has rained throughout much of today in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, apparently interrupting a large movement of migrating birds.  There is, at the time of this writing, a significant fallout of coastal water birds here.  Hundreds of diving ducks and other benthic feeders are on the Susquehanna River and on some of the clearer lakes and ponds in the region.  They can be expected to remain until the storm passes and visibility improves—then they’ll promptly commence their exodus.

The following photographs were taken during today’s late afternoon thundershower at Memorial Lake State Park at Fort Indiantown Gap, Lebanon County.

A one-year-old male Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus).
Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator) are a familiar sight in saltwater bays, not so familiar on inland bodies of water.
A small raft of Scaup (Aythya species).
A pair of Buffleheads.
A Common Loon that lands in a parking lot is unable to take flight again.  It must be transported to a body of water large enough for it to run across the surface and get the speed it needs to take off and resume its flight.  This Common Loon at Memorial Lake has selected an ideal fallout haven.  It will have plenty of runway space when it decides to leave.
A Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) in a heavy downpour.

Migrating land birds have also been forced down by the persistent rains.

The tail-pumping Eastern Phoebe is a common sight around the lower Susquehanna valley right now.  Many will stay to breed, often building their nests under a man-made bridge, porch. or other structure.

Why not get out and take a slow quiet walk on a rainy day.  It may be the best time of all for viewing certain birds and other wildlife.

Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopovo) will often leave the cover of woodlands and forest to forage in the open during a rain shower.
During the final hours of this evening, wind-assisted flights of northbound migrating birds are indicated as blue masses around radar sites south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  These nocturnal flights may constitute yet another fallout in the area of the showers and storms shown passing west to east through Pennsylvania, adding to the existing concentration of grounded migrants in the lower Susquehanna valley.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

No Need to Hurry

It’s that time of year when one may expect to find migratory Neotropical songbirds feeding among the foliage of trees and shrubs in the forests, woodlots, and thickets of the lower Susquehanna valley.

During a late afternoon stroll through a headwaters forest east of Conewago Falls outside Mount Gretna, I was pleased to finally come upon a noisy gathering of about two dozen birds.  It had, previous to that, been a quiet two hours of walking, only the rumble of an approaching thunderstorm punctuated the silence.  Among this little flock were some chickadees, robins, Gray Catbirds, an Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), and a Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus).  Besides the catbirds, there were two other species of Neotropical migrants; both were warblers.  No less than six Black-throated Blue Warblers (Setophaga caerulescens) were  vying for positions in the trees from which they could investigate the stranger on the footpath below.  And among the understory shrubs there were at least as many Ovenbirds (Seiurus aurocapilla) satisfying a similar curiosity.

The Black-throated Blue Warbler nests to the north of the lower Susquehanna valley, which it transits as a common spring and fall migrant.  On their wintering grounds, they have a thing for warm weather and the better part of a P.B. & J. sandwich.
Throughout the Susquehanna watershed, the Ovenbird is a common ground-nesting species in deciduous forests with moderately vegetated understories.  The birds seen today may have been a family group that has not yet begun the journey south.

When they depart the Susquehanna valley, these two warbler species will be southbound for wintering ranges that include Florida, many of the Caribbean Islands, Central America, and, for the Ovenbirds, northern South America.  Their flights occur at night.  During the breeding season and while migrating, both feed primarily on insects and other arthropods .  On the wintering grounds, they will consume some fruit.  It is during their time in the tropics that the Black-throated Blue Warbler sometimes visits feeding stations that offer grape jelly, much to the delight of bird enthusiasts.

Black-throated Blue Warblers and Ovenbirds commonly winter on the Florida peninsula and in the Bahamas.  With the major tropical cyclone Hurricane Dorian presently ripping through the region, these birds are better off taking their time getting there.  There’s no need to hurry.  The longer they and the other Neotropical migrants hang around, the more we get to enjoy them anyway.  So get out there to see them before they go—and remember to look up.

Category 4 Hurricane Dorian at 9:06 EDT on September 2, 2019.  If you’re headed that direction, there’s no need to hurry.  Note the cloud-free skies over much of the mainland.  (NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service image)
A massive bird migration is indicated on Doppler radar in the clear skies over the eastern United States tonight (blue and green over most of the mainland).  In this loop of composite radar images from the southeastern states, note the relative absence of a flight over the Florida peninsula where the outer precipitation bands of Hurricane Dorian can be seen.  Note too that there appears to be a heavy concentration of birds flying in a southwest direction to cross the Gulf of Mexico, thus continuing their journey to Central or South America while avoiding the deadly hurricane and a much smaller tropical disturbance off the shores of Texas and Tamaulipas, Mexico.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

It’s Not Too Late

In the event you found yourself missing the spectacle of the migration of Neotropical birds through the northeastern United States earlier this month, there is good news.  Apparently the cool and wet weather has prolonged the spring flights which by now are normally slowing to a trickle.  Take a look at this composite radar loop and see the masses of birds rising skyward as nightfall progresses from east to west during the past couple of hours.

 

Nocturnal migrating birds are indicated as they ascend into the path of sweeping radar beams at sites throughout the eastern United States.  The outer bands of Tropical Storm Alberto appear over southern Florida and strong thunderstorms are widespread elsewhere.   (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
A zoomed-in view of Texas shows a number of items of interest.   A tornado warning was issued for the thunderstorm seen north of San Antonio (hook-shaped red in lower center).  In the earliest frames of this loop, two well-defined rings expand around radar sites west of San Antonio, followed by a partial ring in the city and another to the north near the thunderstorm.  These rings plot accurately with the locations of large bat roosts.  The bats, millions of them, ascend high enough to be detected by radar as they depart their roosts to feed at dusk.  Finally at nightfall, great masses of Neotropical birds are displayed as they rise into the busy flyway used by northbound migrants after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

Any of the birds presently moving through Texas could travel for another week or more to reach the Susquehanna region—so there’s still time to see the show.  Let’s grab a camera or some binoculars and go have a look.  It’s not too late.

Feathered Fallout

The NOAA National Weather Service radar images from last evening provided an indication that there may be a good fallout of birds at daybreak in the lower Susquehanna valley.  The moon was bright, nearly full, and there was a gentle breeze from the north to move the nocturnal migrants along.  The conditions were ideal.

Rising from daytime roosts in New York and Pennsylvania, then streaming south in moonlit skies, migrating birds are recorded as echoes on this post-sunset composite NEXRAD loop from last evening.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

The Riparian Woodlands at Conewago Falls were alive with migrants this morning.  American Robins and White-throated Sparrows were joined by new arrivals for the season: Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), Ruby-crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula), Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa), Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), and Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata).  These are the perching birds one would expect to have comprised the overnight flight.  While the individuals that will remain may not yet be among them, these are the species we will see wintering in the Mid-Atlantic states.  No trip to the tropics for these hardy passerines.

American Robins continued migratory flight into the first hour of daylight this morning.  Their calls are commonly heard at night as migrating individuals pass overhead.
White-throated Sparrows are nocturnal migrants, and are a familiar find on woodland edges and at suburban feeding stations through the winter.
Dark-eyed Juncos, also nocturnal migrants, are common winter residents in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, frequently visiting bird feeders.
Heavy rain earlier this week in the Susquehanna River drainage basin has flooded most of the Pothole Rocks; the rapids of Conewago Falls have returned.
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Yellowlegs for Breakfast

A few nocturnal migrants flew through the moonlit night to arrive at Conewago Falls for a sunrise showing this morning.  A dozen warblers were in the treetops and a Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) chattered away in the understory of the Riparian Woodlands.  Three species of shorebirds were in the falls and on the Pothole Rocks: Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla), Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes), and Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca).

A Greater Yellowlegs (right) and two Lesser Yellowlegs sandpipers dropped by for breakfast.

The diurnal migration was highlighted by a Merlin (Falco columbarius), an Osprey, and a Bald Eagle, each flying down the river.  Most of the other birds in the falls seemed content to linger and feed.  There’s no need to hurry folks, only trouble lurks down there in paradise at the moment.

A light to moderate flight of nocturnal migrants in the eastern United States is displayed on NOAA National Weather Service NEXRAD radar at 4:58 AM EDT.  The eye of Hurricane Irma can be seen approaching the Florida Keys.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
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Piles of Green Tape

A couple of inches of rain this week caused a small increase in the flow of the river, just a burp, nothing major.  This higher water coincided with some breezy days that kicked up some chop on the open waters of the Susquehanna upstream of Conewago Falls.  Apparently it was just enough turbulence to uproot some aquatic plants and send them floating into the falls.

Piled against and upon the upstream side of many of the Pothole Rocks were thousands of two to three feet-long flat ribbon-like opaque green leaves of Tapegrass, also called Wild Celery, but better known as American Eelgrass (Vallisneria americana).  Some leaves were still attached to a short set of clustered roots.  It appears that most of the plants broke free from creeping rootstock along the edge of one of this species’ spreading masses which happened to thrive during the second half of the summer.  You’ll recall that persistent high water through much of the growing season kept aquatic plants beneath a blanket of muddy current.  The American Eelgrass colonies from which these specimens originated must have grown vigorously during the favorable conditions in the month of August.  A few plants bore the long thread-like pistillate flower stems with a fruit cluster still intact.  During the recent few weeks, there have been mats of American Eelgrass visible, the tops of their leaves floating on the shallow river surface, near the east and west shorelines of the Susquehanna where it begins its pass through the Gettysburg Basin near the Pennsylvania Turnpike bridge at Highspire.  This location is a probable source of the plants found in the falls today.

Uprooted American Eelgrass floating into the Pothole Rocks under the power of a north wind.  Note the white thread-like pistillate flower stem to the left and the small rooted specimen to the upper right.  The latter is likely a plant from the creeping rootstock on the edge of a colony.  As a native aquatic species, American Eelgrass is a critical link in the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay food chain.  Its decimation by pollution during the twentieth century led to migration pattern alterations and severe population losses for the Canvasback (Aythya valisineria) duck.
American Eelgrass, a very small specimen, found growing in a low-lying Pothole Rock alongside the accumulations of freshly arriving material from upstream.  Note that the creeping rootstock has leaves growing from at least three nodes on this plant.  Eelgrass dislocations are regular occurrences which sometimes begin new colonies, like the small one seen here in this Diabase Pothole Rock Microhabitat.

The cool breeze from the north was a perfect fit for today’s migration count.  Nocturnal migrants settling down for the day in the Riparian Woodlands at sunrise included more than a dozen warblers and some Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis).  Diurnal migration was underway shortly thereafter.

A moderate flight of nocturnal migrants is indicated around NEXRAD sites in the northeastern states at 3:18 AM EDT.  The outer rain bands of Hurricane Irma can be seen approaching the Florida Keys as the storm closes in on the peninsula.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

Four Bald Eagles were counted as migrants this morning.  Based on plumage, two were first-year eagles (Juvenile) seen up high and flying the river downstream, one was a second-year bird (Basic I) with a jagged-looking wing molt, and a third was probably a fourth year (Basic III) eagle looking much like an adult with the exception of a black terminal band on the tail.  These birds were the only ones which could safely be differentiated from the seven or more Bald Eagles of varying ages found within the past few weeks to be lingering at Conewago Falls.  There were as many as a dozen eagles which appeared to be moving through the falls area that may have been migrating, but the four counted were the only ones readily separable from the locals.

Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) were observed riding the wind to journey not on a course following the river, but flying across it and riding the updraft on the York Haven Diabase ridge from northeast to southwest.

Bank Swallows (Riparia riparia) seem to have moved on.  None were discovered among the swarms of other species today.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Caspian Terns, Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), and Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) were migrating today, as were Monarch butterflies.

Not migrating, but always fun to have around, all four wise guys were here today.  I’m referring to the four members of the Corvid family regularly found in the Mid-Atlantic states: Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), Fish Crow (Corvus ossifragus), and Common Raven (Corvus corax).

It looks like a big Blue Jay, but it’s not.  This Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) takes a break after flying around the falls trying to shake a marauding Ruby-throated Hummingbird off its tail.
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SOURCES

Klots, Elsie B.  1966.  The New Field Book of Freshwater Life.  G. P. Putnam’s Sons.  New York, NY.

Strangers In The Night

We all know that birds (and many other animals) migrate.  It’s a survival phenomenon which, above all, allows them to utilize their mobility to translocate to a climate which provides an advantage for obtaining food, enduring seasonal weather, and raising offspring.

In the northern hemisphere, most migratory birds fly north in the spring to latitudes with progressively greater hours of daylight to breed, nest, and provide for their young.  In the southern hemisphere there are similar movements, these to the south during their spring (our autumn).  The goal is the same, procreation, though the landmass offering sustenance for species other than seabirds is limited “down under”.  Interestingly, there are some seabirds that breed in the southern hemisphere during our winter and spend our summer (their winter) feeding on the abundant food sources of the northern oceans.

Each autumn, migratory breeding birds leave their nesting grounds as the hours of sunlight slowly recede with each passing day.  They fly to lower latitudes where the nights aren’t so long and the climate is less brutal.  There, they pass their winter season.

Food supply, weather, the start/finish of the nesting cycle, and other factors motivate some birds to begin their spring and autumn journeys.  But overall, the hours of daylight and the angle of the sun prompt most species to get going.

But what happens after birds begin their trips to favorable habitats?  Do they follow true north and south routes?  Do they fly continuously, day and night?  Do they ease their way from point to point, stopping to feed along the way?  Do they all migrate in flocks?  Well, the tactics of migration differ widely from bird species to species, from population to population, and sometimes from individual to individual.  The variables encountered when examining the dynamics of bird migration are seemingly endless, but fascinatingly so.  Bird migration is well-studied, but most of its intricacies and details remain a mystery.

Consider for a moment that just 10,000 years ago, an Ice Age was coming to an end, with the southernmost edge of the most recent glaciers already withdrawn into present-day Canada from points as near as the upper Susquehanna River watershed.  Back then, the birds migrating to the lower portion of the drainage basin each spring probably weren’t forest-dwelling tropical warblers, orioles, and other songbirds.  The migratory birds that nested in the lower Susquehanna River valley tens of millennia ago were probably those species found nesting today in taiga and tundra much closer to the Arctic Circle.  And the ancestors of most of the tropical migrants that nest here now surely spent their entire lives much closer to the Equator, finding no advantage by journeying to the frigid Susquehanna valley to nest.  It’s safe to say that since those times, and probably prior to them, migration patterns have been in a state of flux.

During the intervening years since the great ice sheets, birds have been able to adapt to the shifts in their environment on a gradual basis, often using their unmatched mobility to exploit new opportunities.  Migration patterns change slowly, but continuously, resulting in differences that can be substantial over time.  If the natural transformations of habitat and climate have kept bird migration evolving, then man’s impact on the planet shows great potential to expedite future changes, for better or worse.

Now, let’s look at two different bird migration strategies, that of day-fliers or diurnal migrants, and that of night-fliers, the nocturnal migrants.

Diurnal migrants are the most familiar to people who notice birds on the move.  The majority of these species have one thing in common, some form of defense to lessen the threat of becoming the victim of a predator while flying in daylight.  Of course the vultures, hawks, and eagles fly during the day.  Swallows and swifts employ speed and agility on the wing to avoid becoming prey, as do hummingbirds.  Finches have an undulating flight, never flying on a horizontal plane, which makes their capture more difficult.  Other songbirds seen migrating by day, Red-winged Blackbirds for example, congregate into flocks soon after breeding season to avoid being alone.  Defense flocks change shape constantly as birds position themselves toward the center and away from the vulnerable fringes of the swarm.  The larger the flock, the safer the individual.  For a lone bird, large size can be a form of protection against all but the biggest of predators.  Among the more unusual defenses is that of birds like Indigo Buntings and other tropical migrants that fly across the Gulf of Mexico each autumn (often completing a portion of the flight during the day), risking exhaustion at sea to avoid the daylight hazards, including numerous predators, found in the coastal and arid lands of south Texas.  Above all, diurnal migrants capture our attention and provide a spectacle which fascinates us.  Perhaps diurnal migrants attract our favor because we can just stand or sit somewhere and watch them go by.  We can see, identify, and even count them.  It’s fantastic.

What about a bird like the Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)?  It is often seen migrating in flocks during the day (the truly migratory ones flying much higher than the local year-round resident “transplants”), but then, during the big peak movements of spring and fall, they can be heard overhead all through the night.  Perhaps the Canada Goose and related waterfowl bridge the gap between day and night, introducing us to the secretive starlight and moonshine commuters, the nocturnal migrants.

The high-flying migratory Canada Goose can be seen during the daytime and heard at night when passing over the lower Susquehanna River valley.  A large flight exiting from Chesapeake Bay in late February or early March often results in a 12 to 24 hour-long stream of northbound flocks.

The skies are sometimes filled with thousands of them, mostly small perching birds and waders.  These strangers in the night fly inconspicuously in small groups or individually, and most can be detected when passing above us only when heard making short calls to remain in contact with their travel partners.  They need not worry about predators, but instead must have a method of finding their way.  Many, like the Indigo Bunting, can navigate by the stars, a capability which certainly required many generations to refine.  The nocturnal migrants begin moving just after darkness falls and ascend without delay to establish a safe flight path void of obstacles (though lights and tall structures can create a deadly counter to this tactic).  Often, the only clue we have that a big overnight flight has occurred is the sudden appearance of new bird species or individuals, on occasion in great numbers, in a place where we observe regularly.  Just days ago, the arrival of various warbler species at Conewago Falls indicated that there was at least a small to moderate movement of these birds during previous nights.

In recent years, the availability of National Weather Service radar has brought the capability to observe nocturnal migrants into easy reach.  Through the night, you can log on to your local National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service radar page (State College for the Conewago Falls area) and watch on the map as the masses of migrating bird pass through the sweep of the radar beam.  As they lift off just after nightfall, rising birds will create an echo as they enter the sweeping beam close to the radar site.  Then, due to the incline of the transmitted signal and the curvature of the earth, migrants will be displayed as an expanding donut-like ring around the radar’s map location as returns from climbing birds are received from progressively higher altitudes at increasing distances from the center of the site’s coverage area.  On a night with a local or regional flight, several radar locations may show signs of birds in the air.  On nights with a widespread flight, an exodus of sorts, the entire eastern half of the United States may display birds around the sites.  You’ll find the terrain in the east allows it to be well-covered while radars in the west are less effective due to the large mountains.  At daybreak, the donut-shaped displays around each radar site location on the map contract as birds descend out of the transmitted beam and are no longer detected.

Weather systems sometimes seem to motivate some flights and stifle others.  The first example seen below is a northbound spring exodus, the majority of which is probably migrants from the tropics, the Neotropical migrants, including our two dozen species of warblers.  A cold front passing into the northeastern United States appears to have stifled any flight behind it, while favorable winds from the southwest are motivating a heavy concentration ahead of the front.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service radar image from May 5, 2010, at 11:18 PM EDT, shows rain associated with a cold front moving east from the border of Ontario, Canada, and the United States into New England and the Mid-Atlantic region.  The heavy blue and green reflections surrounding the radar locations ahead of the front are nocturnal migrating birds taking advantage of favorable conditions for flight including a tail wind from the southwest.  Note the lighter migration behind the advancing front.  Heavy radar echoes on the gulf coast, particularly in Texas, indicate dense bird concentrations exiting the tropics to fan out into North American breeding areas.  The westward progression of expanding echoes surrounding individual radar sites indicates birds rising into the radar beam at local nightfall.

The second and third examples seen below are an autumn nocturnal migration movement, probably composed of many of the same tropics-bound species which were on the way north in the previous example.  Note that during autumn, the cold front seems to motivate the flight following its passage.  Ahead of the front, there is a reduced and, in places, undetectable volume of birds.  The two images below are separated by about 42 hours.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service radar image (still) from September 5, 2017, at 2:38 AM EDT, shows rain in the northeast associated with a slow-moving cold front stretching from Maine southwest to New Mexico.  Heaviest nocturnal bird flights can be seen behind the advancing front where there are favorable tail winds from the north or northwest.
Nearly two full days later, the slow-moving cold front from the previous image has crossed Pennsylvania.  As nightfall progresses from east to west, ascending nocturnal migrants enter NEXRAD radar beams, their echoes creating expanding rings around individual sites.  Concentrations of southbound birds can be seen along the gulf coast.  Many will follow the Texas coastline into Mexico.  The Neotropical migrants that try to cross the Gulf of Mexico this night could be in for a perilous voyage.  Hurricane Katia is churning in the southern gulf and a much stronger storm, Hurricane Irma, is rolling toward the Bahamas and Florida from the southeast.  Masses of birds that follow learned routes or instinct to venture offshore and cross seas under such circumstances could suffer catastrophic losses.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

You can easily learn much more about birds (and insects and bats) on radar, including both diurnal and nocturnal migrants, by visiting the Clemson University Radar Ornithology Laboratory (CUROL) website.  There you’ll find information on using the various mode settings on NEXRAD (Next-Generation Radar) to differentiate between birds, other flying animals, and inanimate airborne or grounded objects.  It’s superbly done and you’ll be glad you gave it a try.

SOURCES

Clemson University Radar Ornithology Laboratory (CUROL) website:   http://virtual.clemson.edu/groups/birdrad/    as accessed September 6, 2017.