Saturday, November 06, 2010

Fall Out

Hermit Thrush - June, 2010
Last June on Hogback Mountain, I clawed my way through a thicket until I reached mature forest where the understory was sparse. I found an old log and sat down to wait for whatever might appear. As the disturbance of my conspicuous arrival gradually faded, the birds in the neighbor resumed their activity - a Downy Woodpecker drummed on a hollow branch - a Yellow-rumped Warbler sang overhead. Then a Hermit Thrush came from the forest floor and perched in a scraggly viburnum. He raised his head and sang his haunting, flute-like song.

The Hermit Thrush glanced in my direction as I raised my camera. Instantly he dismissed me as benign, and continued his song, though he may sensed the camera pointed toward him. He stood  erect for his portrait.

The Hermit Thrush is Vermont’s state bird. It is quite common in our woods during the summer, living in the lower parts of the forest and blending with the debris of the understory. I see it flash across a forest road. Or I see something scratching on the ground and glimpse a rusty red tail as it flies. It is not often that the Hermit Thrush will stay still so that a bird watcher can have a leisurely look. I was thrilled.

Hermit Thrush, Cape May, October, 29

Last Friday, I was in Cape May. In the mid-morning, I stood near the edge of the parking area at Higbee Beach WMA looking at a tangled grape vine which wound its way up a tree. I was twenty feet from the vine. Ten Hermit Thrushes were feeding on the grapes. On the ground to the right of the tree, six thrushes scratched in the leaves. To my immediate left, more thrushes hurried through the thicket. The birds in the grape vine flew, to be replaced immediately by a dozen more. In the gravel of the parking area, three thrushes drank from a puddle while four more picked grit for the gizzard. In the surrounding canopy, even more thrushes moved. Occasionally one would pause on a sunlit branch for a quick portrait.

During last Friday morning, I probably saw more Hermit Thrushes than I have seen in thirty years of birding. I witnessed a fall out.

Last week the East Coast was under a southern weather system. It was rainy and warm. I watched the weather reports, and when I saw that at least three consecutive sunny days were predicted for southern New Jersey, I drove south. The first day was in the upper 70s, too warm for Vermonters in late October whose blood is thickening for winter.

Overnight, a strong high pressure system cleared the warm air, scattered the remaining clouds, and plunged the temperature. Friday morning was clear, crisp, and blustery. I began the day at dawn at the morning songbird watch, where migrating songbirds are counted as they finish their night flight. I had on my fleece and flannel jacket, windbreaker, knit hat, and wool gloves.

The cold front did more than just change the temperature. Songbirds migrate at night. The strong northwest winds swept them east to the coast. At dawn they came to ground at land’s end, the southern tip of New Jersey.

Rusty Blackbird

The viewing platform for the morning songbird watch looks over a stretch of coastal reeds. There are a few low trees scattered through the reeds. The birds came from, or flew over, the protective line of forest to the left. Often they paused on the trees midway across the open area, then continued on to another copse of trees with their protective cover. The flight was continuous, and the numbers beyond counting for the casual observer. There were mixed flocks of blackbirds, including Rusty Blackbirds, three to five flickers pausing in a tree at one time, sparrows rushing over and through the reeds, kinglets and phoebes. The flight was led by robins and Yellow-rumped Warblers. The count reported over 73,000 robins and over 63,000 yellow-rumps during the few hours following dawn. How do you count such numbers?

I made no effort. For long stretches, I did not even raise my binoculars. I just watched the birds fly. If you can remember a time when the word “awesome” was not used for trivial purposes, then that is the word that best describes the phenomenon.

Yellow-rumped Warblers
I am not overstating. As I brushed past veteran Cape May birders they were shaking their heads in wonder. When was the last time there had been a fall out like this? Was it 1999 when there were a million robins? Or 1989 when yellow-rumps were everywhere, just like this year?

Mid-morning I stood along the dirt road between the parking area and the watch platform, trying to decide which bird to photograph next. An elderly lady walked slowly down the road toward the viewing platform with her cane. She was bundled up against the wind. She had binoculars around her neck. “Unbelievable,” she said in greeting as she passed me. Forty minutes later she returned up the road. In awe she said, “Once in a lifetime.” Then she thought for a moment. “Maybe not, but you’ve got to be lucky to experience something like this once, and really lucky to see it again.”

Eastern Phoebe

 I did not do much walking last Friday morning. All that was necessary was to pick a spot and watch the birds moving through the branches, thickets, or grasses. Last Spring I tried to get a good representative photograph of an Eastern Phoebe, without success. With the Cape May fall out, I got a dozen good photos. My encounters with Swamp Sparrows this year have been few, and no photo ops. Last Friday I took dozens of Swamp Sparrow photos.

And so it went. There were occasional interruptions when the birds suddenly scattered as a Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk made a foraging attack. The birds returned to their feeding within moments. They had been carried to the coast by the strong northwest winds, but they had also struggled in those winds, and possibly against those winds. They were exhausted, and they needed to eat.

Hermit Thrushes

That’s the irony. It was a big birding weekend and festival in Cape May. The fall out was great for the birders. Birds were swept from all over the northeast into the southern New Jersey peninsula. Some may have been swept even further out over the ocean, and burned their energy reserves before they could fight their way back to land. Weather conditions which result in a fall out are probably bad for the birds.

That said, standing in one spot, having six Hermit Thrushes in my binoculars at one time, counting twelve thrushes in one grape vine and sixty moving through the thickets and tree branches, is beyond words. Perhaps “euphoria” begins to convey the experience. It is certainly inadequate to say, “Good birding.”


Dan Huber said...

very nice post Chris - sounds like a fantastic time birding indeed.

Folkways Note Book said...

Someday -- I would like to view such a wonderful sight. What an exciting day it must have been for you and the other birders. -- barbara

Debbie Miller @HooootOwl said...

Riveting post! Thoroughly enjoyed every word, every picture. What a wonderful experience!

Unknown said...

If anyone deserves such an experience, it is you, Chris. No one would appreciate it more. :)

eileeninmd said...

Sounds like a great time in Cape May, Chris! Your Hermit Thrush shots are great.

Dawn Fine said...

I am sooooooooooooooooooo Jealous! I read several accounts of the weekend..Epic was said allot.
How exciting it must have been!
Very cool pics of the birdies seen.

Jen Sanford said...

Ah, this post made me smile.. It sounds like you had a truly "awesome" experience and I am glad you shared it with us all..


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