What's in Flight

September & October, 2020

Between mid-August and the end of October, the great fall migration takes place. Carl Schurz Park is choicely placed on the Atlantic Flyway, one of the most important migratory pathways in America. It runs from Greenland through to South America and is used by millions-upon-millions of songbirds, seabirds, birds of prey, waterfowl, butterflies and some species of bats and dragonflies.

Scarlet Tanager fall plumage

Deborah E Bifulco

Scarlet Tanager spring plumage

Deborah E Bifulco 

 ‘A lot of birds migrate by hugging the coastline. It is a landmark for them to follow, so green space beside the water is especially important,’ says birding expert and ecologist Gabriel Willow.  Because of this, Carl Schurz Park offers a vital haven for migratory birds. Many species of songbird including Cape May Warblers, Pine Warblers, Canada Warblers, Red-eyed Vireos, Scarlet Tanagers and Yellow-billed Cuckoos were spotted in the park during last year’s fall migration.  

Baltimore Oriole fall plumage

Deborah E Bifulco

Baltimore Oriole spring plumage

Deborah E Bifulco 

Migrants often spend a few days, and sometimes even a week, in the park refueling and resting before heading further south.‘ It depends on the condition of the bird, how long they stay around. A bird that got caught in a storm and diminished its energy may take a week to build up more fuel,’ says Kyle Horton, a post-doctoral fellow at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Favorite foods this time of year are berries as well as insects, so the best places in the park to spot the migrants are high up in the oaks and other trees, and in the fruiting trees and bushes.

American Redstart fall plumage

Deborah E Bifulco

American Redstart spring plumage

Deborah E Bifulco 

Spotting these flocks of migrants in the fall, even when they are hiding in plain sight, can be difficult. Many of the birds, which are vibrantly colored during spring migration, now appear washed out or as if they are in yellow-green camouflage to match the autumn leaves. Paul Sweet, Collection Manager of the Ornithology Department at the American Natural History Museum, explains: ‘In spring the males especially are in their brightest plumage to help them attract a mate and fend off competition.’ But breeding done, there is no more need for bright feathers and enticing songs.  Most birds molt their feathers before the fall migration. And some undergo striking changes in appearance. The brilliant red of the male Scarlet Tanager turns yellowish-green. The Blackpoll Warbler, with its distinctive black cap and bright white cheeks, turns olive green with a yellowish head. Even distinctive details like the Canada Warbler’s pretty black necklace can vanish almost entirely.  And a lot of the immature birds now passing through complicate the picture, as their plumage can be uncharacteristic.

Chestnut-sided Warbler fall plumage

Deborah E Bifulco

Chestnut-sided Warbler spring plumage

Deborah E Bifulco

Blackpoll Warbler fall plumage

Deborah E Bifulco

Blackpoll Warbler spring plumage

Barrie Raik 

During migration, the majority of birds, even tiny four-inch long Warblers, fly at elevations between 1,900 to 8,200 feet. And some fly as high as 12,000 to 15,000 feet. They are typically on epic migration journeys of several thousand miles. Many start in the Boreal Forests of Canada, or even higher in Alaska, and fly South to their tropical homelands; Veeries fly to the woods of the Brazilian Cerrado; Baltimore Orioles return to Colombia. The birds fly through the night when the atmosphere becomes less turbulent; to avoid diurnal predators such as hawks; and so they can feed during the day. Ornithologists have discovered birds use the stars, Earth’s magnetic field and physical landmarks for orientation. And they chose nights with strong tail winds to conserve energy.

Cape May Warbler fall

Deborah E Bifulco

Cape MayWarbler spring

Deborah E Bifulco

Magnolia Warbler fall

Deborah E Bifulco

Magnolia Warbler spring

Deborah E Bifulco

The estimate is that more than triple the numbers of birds that fly North through the city in the Spring are now returning south.  ‘For every two that come up, there are now six going back,’ says Paul Sweet. The explosion in numbers is due to all the successfully hatched chicks.  But he warns. ‘It is a very perilous return journey.  A lot of them will not make it home.’  One of the most perilous parts of the Atlantic flyway is the non-stop 15-hour plus journey across the Gulf of Mexico.  Without a good tailwind, the journey can be mortally exhausting and if the weather turns stormy birds can be flung out of the sky and drown in the Ocean. During storms, sailors and oil rig worker report sightings of hundreds of migratory birds suddenly appearing around a ship or an oil rig in search of a safe perch to give them respite, before traveling on.

Pine Warbler fall plumage

Deborah E Bifulco

Pine Warbler spring plumage

Deborah E Bifulco

Words: Lucie Young

Images:  Deborah E Bifulco, Barrie Raik




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