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Denizens of the Autumn Air

October 20, 2010                                      Volume 3 Issue 13

By Gregory S. Keller

I can hear them at night. Flocks of them. They call down to me, taunting me, I’m sure of it.

During the day, they feed in northern forests and wet meadows to gain weight for their nighttime adventures. Their opulent plumages would make the most flamboyant fashionista’s head turn with envy: sunlit rainbows of scarlet and indigo, gold and violet. Their sing-song melodies and warbles in the morning rival the most accomplished flutists or sopranos. But as they dart through thick foliage in the afternoon, they seem frantic, almost manic.

I can relate. To the frenetic pace, that is, but not the singing abilities or the attention from fashion experts. Ah, if only we’d spend time looking and listening this autumn, we’d find migratory songbirds joyous and vivacious and well, inspiring—so much so that we might need to adjust our schedules.

Consider, for instance, the Scarlet Tanagers and Indigo Buntings, their names hinting at their vibrant appearance, boundless in vigor this season. Blackburnian Warblers—dubbed the “firethroats” of the north with flashes of brilliant orange—feed on caterpillars in treetops on crisp fall mornings. Brilliantly colored Yellow Warblers penetrate the woods with the self-promoting song that sounds like “Sweet! Sweet! I’m so sweet!” And Golden-crowned Kinglets dash to and fro with the energy of five-year-old children on multiple caffeinated energy drinks.

Yet it is their nocturnal flight calls that often grab my attention. They gather in flocks overhead, sending the subtle message of a freedom I can’t share, and my jealousy is surpassed only by my admiration. Thousands of songbirds migrate each night under the cloak of darkness, so many in fact that migrant flocks actually appear on Doppler radar displays as massive and intense storms. They are the avian raindrops of nor’easters.

Then there are the impressive feats of flight. Blackpoll Warblers fly 2,000 miles during the autumn months from northern New England to northern South America. Their nonstop flight along the Atlantic takes up to 88 hours. Red-eyed Vireos, abundant in the Gordon College woods during summer, depart New England each September for the lush Amazon Basin after three months of family duties.

Black Throated Green Warbler

They, too, make me jealous . . . so jealous. I haven’t traveled as they have, never visited Belize or Costa Rica or Panama or any other tropical country, barely even left the United States. I’ll never be able to call the Amazon Basin or the mangrove forests of the Virgin Islands my “habitat.” As hard as I try, I can’t fly without the assistance of a large aircraft, the presence of 150 human passengers, and my $25-per-flight luggage. Even my jeans feel dingy compared to a Blue-winged Warbler.

I can, though, live somewhat vicariously through these creatures, so I leave my house windows cracked at night in hopes of catching a glimpse of their exotic travels, imagining how they’re due to arrive in Guatemala or the Bahamas or Brazil in a few days.

At the end of October as the weather cools and the last of the migrants pass, I convince myself that I really am better adapted than these silly birds. Unlike them, I am able to evade house cats, glass windows, and wind turbines successfully as I stroll through my neighborhood. I can whistle a little tune while I do so, a song nearly as beautiful as that of the ethereal Wood Thrush, I tell myself. Perhaps my resentment will pass with the long New England winter.

After all, I know deep down that these species are the glories of creation and the splendors of nature. They control insect populations and they disperse seeds, while surpassing our most vivid imaginations. We can admire these unassuming migrants as they fill our world with color, sound, and energy, at least before they leave us in their annual cycle for their tropical climes. For now, we can simply watch and listen, marveling at the splendor flying through our backyards and night-time skies, with joy . . . and a slight tinge of envy.

But when spring finally does come, I confess I’ll feel a weird sort of relief when I see again the orange flashes of the American Redstart and hear the welcoming melody of the Chestnut-sided Warbler singing to me: “Very very pleased to meetcha’!”

Gregory S. Keller is associate professor of conservation biology and curator of birds and mammals at Gordon College. He and his wife Beth and their two sons live in West Newbury, Massachusetts.

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