Gearing up for Migration

By Hal Heron, Reporter for Migration Events and Other News from the Atlantic Flyway.

It’s a common saying that “a bird rarely sees beyond its own beak” and these days one must often keep one’s eyes focused downwards, always searching for one’s next meal. But if that bird was to raise its head and look up as the season turns to autumn it would witness the skies over its head become one of the greatest superhighways of avian passage on the planet. As the summer ends the mighty Atlantic Flyway is gearing up to host the Great Migration South!

The southern migration starts far North with the waterfowl. After a summer of frolics and fun — eating watercress sandwiches on rocky northern beaches — hundreds of thousands of northern waterfowl (or Wetsuits, as I like to call them) are turning their winter thoughts towards Florida. Flotillas of geese, swans and ducks vacate their summer lake homes with a splattering of clownish webbed feet on water. Trumpeting and honking like a herd of clumsy elephants these goofy seaplanes somehow duckwalk themselves into the atmosphere. Up there they miraculously transform into one of the most graceful sights to behold: thousands of mighty bird echelons darkening the skies. Each individual bird maintains her position in formation, flying shoulder to shoulder with her sisters, honking support, and digging in together for the long task ahead: a flight of thousands of miles through all kinds of weather towards warm Southern resting grounds. It is the most extraordinary displacement of avian life between here and the Mississippi River.

Bird flying and wearing an old-timey pilots helmet and goggles


The journey is long and hazardous. As the birds migrate thousands of miles from the bottom of the Arctic to Florida and beyond (some Wetsuits won’t stop til they reach Brazil) they face perils such as bad weather, wildlife attacks (including by some birds — you know who you are), and other mysterious dangers such as the Exploding Places, where individual flyers seem to explode in a sudden thunderclap, burst into a cloud of feathers, and fall spiralling to the ground. No one understands why this happens but humans are suspected. Certainly there is a link between the Exploding Places and the wooden bird mannequins humans keep near their floating houses. (And we know with humans there is often thunder.)

Still other perils await upon arrival. The Wetsuits encounter drought, scarcity of essential food supplies, and even entire southern wetlands that are simply disappearing. My good friend Bjorn is an Arctic Tern and in his younger days he used to travel tens of thousands of miles a year. He says that lately winter grounds and wetlands have been disappearing at an incredible rate. Often wetlands empty for many years are now built up for the development of human flocks, forcing many birds to share valuable space and  resources. Even harder hit, says Bjorn, are the shorebirds who need coastline for food supply and nesting sites. In some places the coastline is being covered by the sea at an alarming rate and our brothers and sisters like the Plovers and Oystercatchers are really suffering. Plus, as we all know, the climate is getting hotter and the autumn storms more severe, making the journey even more dangerous.

Every class of migratory bird is worried about these developments and all watch closely to see what other animals, especially the humans, will do to correct this trend and protect our incredible journey. In the meantime this great peregrination will persist as it always has, helping with plant pollination, pest control, and most importantly, displaying for all the world the power, mystery, and ancestral rites of birds.

It is difficult for most city birds to see this ancient flight of fancy because the caravan passes by mostly at nighttime. So this autumn if you hear ancient bird cries high above you as you lie cosy in your nest, or sense the distant thrum of wingbeats pulling on your soul — spare a thought for the hundreds of thousands toiling high above in the Atlantic Flyway as they persist on their ancient odyssey and all the rewards and dangers it contains. And on moonlit nights don’t forget to look up beyond your own beak. You might even catch a passing glimpse of this mighty avian armada silhouetted against the universe.

Birds flying against a night sky

Illustrations: © Fiona Carswell, 2021.