It’s early September. I’m not ready to face the fade of summer. But the birds tell me that the season has already turned, and that I’d better accept the facts and get out there if I’m going to catch a last glimpse of their southbound undertail coverts. I’ve already seen migrating royal terns and red knots, and mudflats crusty with shorebirds on their way south.
I had a group of five yellow warblers bathing in a puddle outside my kitchen one night. Now they’re very much gone.
The other insistent reminder is the re-appearance of BirdCast forecasts in my blog reader feed. BirdCast is a project led by Steve Kelling at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (they’re always coming up with cool stuff there) combining sophisticated computer-learning models with biological data gathered by eBird, flight call recordings, and weather radar to predict which bird species are on the move, when, and where.
BirdCast posts a weekly forecast, and then a followup analysis. Did the computer prediction match what was actually documented? Did fickle weather change the outcome? Every piece of data is incorporated to improve the model. It is science, but it has a whiff of magic. If I spot a Wilson’s warbler in my yard on Thursday, you’d better believe I’m jumping up and down, whisper-shouting “I got it right! I got it right!” when the species shows up in the BirdCast list the next day.
In a parallel universe, there’s a different me that would prefer to not peel up the layers, to not peer into the inner workings of the natural world. To leave a little mystery. It’s an aesthetic choice, to live in the world as a magical and unknowable place. But this me, in this universe, also loves a little illumination. Because the workings themselves—the ebb and flow of hormones that time molts to grow fresh feathers to carry light bodies over enormous distances; the magnetic navigational sense that humans can’t even imagine, much less tap into; the flocking behavior that pulls great congregations of birds into sync with each other before they engage in the next leg of the trip—the workings are even more magical in the light.
Of course, understanding the mechanics of migration doesn’t only benefit us astonished humans. We are changing the world the birds live in, and there’s no sign that we’re going to be able to stop, at least not altogether. Every data point we log and mystery we tease out is also in service of helping the birds continue to survive.
If we know when the birds are on the move, researchers can help rice farmers in California time their harvest so they can flood the fields when they’re done, creating pop-up wetlands for winged migrants (well, in non-drought years at least). We can channel conservation dollars into enhancing habitat along well-traveled routes. Birders can lure uninitiated friends on field trips with the promise of birds they can only see right now, while they’re on the move. Who knows which little brown bird of fall could be someone’s spark bird?
My summer breeding birds are starting to pull together into loose flocks in preparation for their travels, and the bay and beach are crowded with plovers and sandpipers and all kinds of other shorebirds, gathered together on the move. It’s already pretty wild to think they’re one small part of the massive migration of millions of tiny lives. Knowing the particulars—now this species, now this one, now this one pulsing through our yards and patches from distant origins—really blows my mind. And now that I’ve gotten myself all worked up about the whole thing, I’m going to grab my binoculars and get outside. See you there?
About the Author
Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share. Learn more about Erin by visiting her website at thefamiliarwilderness.com.