Migration Mysteries

We were all taught that birds migrate in the autumn to return to warmer climates where they overwinter. The most conspicuous migrating birds in the Finger Lakes Region are Canada geese as they fly honking in V-formation from field to field. One might ask where the other migrating birds are or if they do not pass through the region at all?

While enjoying some pizza on an unseasonably warm evening, the kids and I were sitting outside the Watkins Glen Pizza Hut and noticed large flocks of song birds silently passing over the ridge where 414 diverts from Route 14. Invasive European starlings are known to gather in large flocks but the flight pattern (how the birds flap their wings) did not match that of starlings. They had to be something else. The flock was quite long and petered out only to have another large flock follow. I think we were the only people who noticed.

School was right in teaching us that most birds fly south in the fall, what they neglected to teach is that many birds fly at high altitudes and others fly at night while they make the journey. The easily identifiable mallard often flies at an altitude of between 400-2,000 feet but has been documented in collisions with aircraft at over 20,000 feet. To compare, the Statue of Liberty is 305 feet tall and New York’s tallest peak, Mount Marcy of the Adirondacks, is 5,344 feet tall. Birds may travel at higher altitudes to avoid predators and to take advantage of tailwinds that ease their journey. Common sense also says that it is more efficient to fly up over obstacles rather than go around them.

Many songbirds fly at night, passing over countryside and city alike in large flocks unbeknownst to sleeping inhabitants. Some birds such as swifts and swallows may eat on the wing at dusk, almost like bats. Others take advantage of high-quality stop-over sites during the day to forage, and fly at night when weather may be calmer. Protection from predators and the necessity to complete the journey in a timely manner may be other reasons birds fly at night.

Migrating birds from eastern Canada probably pass through our region on their way to the southern United States or Central America. Some song birds will stop at feeders to refuel but many will pass unnoticed. For anyone interested in viewing migrating waterfowl, Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge is the place to visit with a pair of binoculars or a good spotting scope.


Story and photo by Gabrielle L. Wheeler