Wings in the Night

Bird Cast

My electronic calendar reminds me it is the autumnal equinox and the first day of another season. Wildlife has its own calendars and clocks. The hummingbirds who pay hourly visits to our feeders didn’t turn up today. I saw only one Osprey flying over Powhatan Creek last week and it has probably left to join others in balmy Caribbean waters.  Purple Grackles and Red-Winged Blackbirds are flocking, and other feathers are flying, though mostly unseen.

Bird migration has held me in thrall since senior student days long ago. I gave a nervous presentation to my department about a new Science paper that conflicted with the theories of one of our professors sitting in the front row. We know why migration happens, and expect it will be impacted by climate change, but how birds navigate thousands of miles, sometimes traveling as lone juveniles, is still poorly understood.

If a bird’s brain seems too small, how can an insect’s brain manage the task? We still have Monarchs filling up with nectar from Mexican sunflowers and Lantana. This last generation of the year will head to their wintering grounds in Mexico. To coin an overused word because I can’t think of a bigger one—the feat is AWESOME.

If you are curious about local bird migration, I suggest googling Bird Cast. This tool was created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and academic partners using radar technology to detect flocks of migrating birds across the continent.

When I visited the website on September 11, it recorded 546,000 birds crossing my county (James City) the night before. The peak number was 51,000 at 11.10 PM. They traveled at an average speed of 16 mph and at 2,600 ft. Migration mostly occurs between dusk and dawn to avoid predators and rest and feed in the daytime. Only 78,100 birds traveled overhead last night, but migration will continue for many more weeks. Bird Cast doesn’t identify species (pending refinements from AI and machine-learning), but, based on other observations, the flocks probably included warblers, flycatchers, tanagers, orioles, and thrushes.

At this time of plenty, farming communities traditionally celebrated bringing in the harvest. Vivaldi represented it with zest from violins in his suite, The Four Seasons. Birds are busy, too, fattening up before a journey that depletes energy reserves and knowing that staying behind is courting starvation in winter. The violins play a mournful largo for that season when the countryside sleeps and our birds sing to foreign ears.

First swallow of spring

Tree Swallow
Tree Swallow. Photo: Patrice Bouchard, Unsplash

On the last day of winter, I saw my first Tree Swallow of the year. It flew beside the James River in the direction of Jamestown Island.

Sociable birds with an iridescent sheen that babble and chatter all day, these swallows sometimes breed in our nestboxes.

Silent winter’s end

Tree swallows dance through the sky

Spring’s symphony begins.

(A haiku)

Cocky Coyotes

Photo: Unsplash (photographer unknown)

Two fully-grown coyotes crossed the road in front of us at 10 AM today before I turned into Jamestown Beach. A patrolman told me he had seen others. The boldness of these sleek canids in shaggy coats the color of dry oak leaves took me by surprise. Their cousins in the mountains are far shier because they are hunted.

Minutes earlier, I disturbed a pair of Red-tailed Hawks feeding on what little remained of a deer carcass in our yard. A kettle of vultures waited patiently nearby.

When a new carcass appears, I assume a road accident victim crawled away to die and attracted scavenging birds to our yard. But coyotes in a pack less than two miles away might have been the primary scavengers or even come here to prey on deer. We are visited by red tooth and claw.

While walking our dogs, Ben and Reg, on the beach, I heard two Great Horned Owls calling to each other in the pinewoods. And the morning’s entertainment finished as a pair of eagles soared acrobatically in the blue sky.

2 + 2 + 2 + 2 wildlife sightings the same morning remind me that Valentine’s Day falls this month.

%d bloggers like this: