It’s just past dawn. You hear a weak, thin note from somewhere overhead. Your eyes catch sight of a small bird flying by rapidly. What was it?
Impossible, you say? Not for elite birders! Sure, you won’t catch every field mark, and the sounds aren’t full songs or even familiar chip notes. But experts combine knowledge of flight calls with observations of shape, flight style, snippets of color pattern, and a thorough understanding of seasonal migration patterns. CMBO researchers will be utilizing all these skills as they conduct a thorough, quantitative study of songbird migration.
Many songbirds, particularly warblers, are nocturnal migrants. However, in certain coastal areas such as Cape May, thousands of songbirds make brief migratory flights just after sunrise following fall cold fronts. What’s most fascinating about these morning flights is that birds are not flying south as one would expect. They’re flying north! This morning flight phenomenon has caught the attention of many birders and ornithologists over the years, including Witmer Stone who referred to the massive northward migration of flickers and smaller songbirds as one of the most striking ornithological sights of the region.
Why morning flight occurs is still unclear. However, like other migration events in Cape May, songbird migration is weather dependent. On some days few birds are seen; on others, thousands may be counted. Exceptional flights in excess of 100,000 birds have been recorded (October 16, 1990 & October 18, 1995).
In recent years, ambitious birders have gathered at Higbee to sharpen their skills in what must be birding’s toughest challenge: the flight identification of fall warblers. In 2003, after several years of volunteer counts, CMBO institutionalized the morning flight count by making it part of our research agenda.
We’ve counted hawks and seabirds at Cape May for many years. These counts have provided crucial information on changes in bird populations. Conservation decisions are based on the data from these counts. The Morning Flight project is part of a groundbreaking study that will allow us to monitor migrating songbirds.
Morning flight counts provide one bit of information. Our research team also uses sensitive weather radar to track the movements of migratory birds. A third study uses acoustical monitoring. Microphones pointed toward the sky actually record the nocturnal flight calls of migrating birds. The recorded calls are translated, resulting in solid data about what birds have migrated over designated sites.
This three-part study will help us examine the abundance, distribution, and species composition of the nocturnal flights. New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory is the only organization in North America conducting this pioneering research.