October 16, 2020
By Michael O’Brien
Anyone who has been out in the field with me knows that I am fascinated by bird behavior, particularly that of migratory birds. One behavior of migratory songbirds that I find especially interesting and exciting to witness is morning flight.
Songbirds migrate primarily at night. They do so in order to take advantage of less turbulent air, to reduce the risk of dehydration or overheating (something that soaring birds like hawks don’t need to worry about as much), and to avoid predators. However, when these songbirds drop down from a night of migration, they typically stop in the first cover they find. In order to work their way to prime foraging and stopover habitat, they wait until sunrise when they can see better, and resume flying for the first hour or two of daylight until they find just the right spot to stop and refuel. This “morning flight” may sometimes be in a counterintuitive direction, with birds backtracking to avoid large areas of inhospitable habitat such as water, fields, or cities.
After a good migration night, those early morning hours provide some of the most exciting birding moments I have ever experienced. Witnessing first-hand that intense migratory urge, or Zugunruhe, is such a privilege. The energy level is infectious as these birds zip overhead or dash from bush to bush. It makes one appreciate how much they go through, and the perils they face in order to complete their migration. It also provides a brief window into what was moving under the cover of darkness overnight.
Identifying these little songbirds zipping past can be a fun challenge, which employs the same skill set that hawk watchers have been using for decades—focusing on size, shape, movement, and color patterns, with the added field mark of flight calls thrown into the mix. Photographing songbirds in morning flight can be even more challenging than identifying them, but rewarding when you are successful! But even if you don’t try to identify or photograph them, just soaking in the spectacle of these songbirds bursting with energy as they try to get where they are going safely is as exhilarating as any type of birding.
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