Three Landbird Hotspots

Songbird Watching in the Mid-Atlantic States
The northern oriole is the state bird of Maryland.

The night sky in spring is alive with movement, cloaked by darkness and altitude, and hidden from the sleeping humans far below. Clues sometimes leak past the mask, however, giving a hint of the grand passage abovethe sound of chirps and twitters falling from the twilight, or the flash of small forms across the face of the full moon, just a millisecond's impression of beating wings.

It may seem odd that songbirds that are for most of the year diurnal (that is, active by day) should choose to migrate over a far-flung course by night, but the reasons make sense. As small-plane pilots know, the night air is usually much calmer and less turbulent, making the flight less tiresome and less wasteful of precious energy. Hawks do not hunt at night. Also, the night sky, painted with the patterns of constellations, apparently provides a road map for migrating songbirds, helping them navigate across thousands of miles.

Depending on the species, the spring migration may be short (such as a robin that moves a few miles from a swampy woodland to a backyard) or epic (like the many songbirds that winter in Central and South America but breed in the subarctic). Routes vary as well; many follow the Central American isthmus, which provides dry land and food the whole way, while others take a more direct, overwater path, crossing the Gulf of Mexico or island-hopping across the Caribbean.

Once on the North American land mass, the migrants are liable to spread out in broad fronts, moving at night and dropping out of the sky at daybreak to feed frantically. These waves of songbirds, mostly warblers and vireos, are the seasonal high point for many birders. Their appearance is unpredictable, except in a few places where geography conspires to concentrate the migrants.

Large bodies of water act as both barriers and pathways for migrating songbirds, which will follow the shoreline if possible or wait for ideal conditions to cross if necessary. So it is that the peninsula of Presque Isle, which juts from the south shore of Lake Erie, serves as a staging ground for landbirds preparing for the 40-mile crossing to Long Point on the Ontario side. Likewise, birds that have just flown across the 13 miles of Delaware Bay land, hungry and tired, on Cape May, another of the so-called landbird traps in the region.

The landbird migration has a definite sequence, beginning with the first major push of yellow-rumped, palm and pine warblers in early to mid-April and peaking the first two weeks of May. Obviously, there is a lag as the waves flow north to south, with any given species apt to be seen in southern Virginia as much as one or two weeks before it appears in, say, Presque Isle.

The best times for birding are from first light until about 9 a.m., when the level of activity drops noticeably. Rarely does one encounter flocks of only one species; usually the birds move in mixed batches, and a tree may hold a half dozen or more varieties. Even while feeding, the flocks usually continue to move—and as often as not, their direction is to the north, pulled by the instinctive urge to return to the breeding grounds as quickly as possible.

The following three locations are worth a first, second, and third look. The inspired will return again and again.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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