When Songbirds Fall to Earth
Image: Canada Warbler by Josh Lincoln
In the darkness before dawn on May 19, thousands of songbirds, each an expression of spring, were flying north toward forests across the U.S. and Canada. Or maybe millions were migrating over the continent — it doesn’t really matter how many. What matters is that at one point during their journey some of the migrants veered off-course and ended up flying into fog over the Gulf of Maine.
For a songbird weighing barely a half-ounce, in the event of a water landing, well, there is no water landing; there is only death. So as the sun rose and pushed light into the fog, the exhausted migrants, perilously close to waves, made their way to a tiny, rocky outpost 10 miles off Maine’s midcoast. And to those of us waiting there on Monhegan Island that morning, the fog delivered a shocking spectacle of warblers.
Blackburnian Warblers glowed like tiny flames in the island’s white spruce trees. Black-throated Green Warblers darted among stacks of crippled lobster traps and piles of variegated coiled rope. Bay-breasted Warblers displayed the most pleasing blend of chestnut, black and tan from beaches and rocky ledges. In total, nearly two dozen different warbler species, two dozen rainbows in two dozen patterns, joined the performance on an island only a mile-and-a-half long by a half-mile wide.
Few of the one hundred or so people on Monhegan that morning — lobster fishermen, merchants, summer residents, laborers, artists or birdwatchers like me — could have avoided the warblers even if we had tried. Few of us will ever forget them.
If you are not much of a birdwatcher, but perhaps have watched birds in magazines or online, you might be unaware of the wonder and rarity of warblers hopping around on a rocky island in the Atlantic Ocean. After all, you’ll find plenty of lovely warbler photos like these elsewhere online, but those are mostly one-offs that in no way convey the joy and sadness and irony of what happened on Monhegan Island last week.
During a fallout the heavens rain birds. It’s often bad for birds and euphoria for birdwatchers.
After all, warblers are nothing if not forest songbirds. Had they dropped from the skies into Monhegan’s trees and shrubs, that might have been expected — and wonderful enough. Birdwatching has plenty of such predictable events, and we birders have our personal favorites. But the warbler performance on Monhegan was serendipitous. We call it a fallout, a noun usually reserved for something bad: what we get after nuclear war, for example, or a political scandal. During a birdwatching fallout the heavens rain birds. The cause is usually foul weather. When migrating songbirds encounter a storm or fog while in flight, when they’re exhausted or disoriented, they’ll drop from the skies to seek safety below. Peninsulas and islands are often their first or only landfall. What’s bad for birds is great for birdwatchers.
Rather than descend into Monhegan’s trees, hundreds of the arriving warblers began to feed on tiny flying insects in plain sight along wrack lines on beaches and on exposed bedrock at the island’s shoreline. With a few flaps of their tiny wings, each warbler would leap from the ground a foot or so, snatch an insect in its bill, and then flutter back to bedrock or beach. Some wandered the coarsely mown lawns in the island’s tiny village or stood in the path of pickups on Monhegan’s rugged gravel roads.
To fully grasp the joy of watching warblers flycatching from the ground like this, you should know that warblers are normally fickle, too often granting us brief, satisfying glimpses and then vanishing into the forest and leaving us wistful and longing for more. No self-respecting warbler has any business dancing around on bedrock at the shorelines, much less at our feet.
Yet during the two days of this particular fallout I was never wanting for warblers. If I found myself squinting into the bright sun toward a Chestnut-sided Warbler, I could turn instead to find a Blackpoll Warbler, a Black-throated Blue Warbler or a Canada Warbler flycatching in almost any other direction. Even the Ovenbird, among our most still and stealthy woodland warblers, displayed his shocking orange racing stripe without interference from any forest leaves. And when I looked up from the bedrock toward a flowering apple tree nearby, I could find Cape May Warblers, sporting chestnut cheeks, and Northern Parula warblers, displaying a second sunrise on their breasts, at eye-level, almost close enough to touch, plucking insects from gaudy white blossoms.
Most anywhere I walked on Monhegan I found warblers and other songbirds too hungry, too disoriented or too tired to fly away from me. It was like having personal audiences with all the people you might love, respect, worship or lust after — all day long until you were sated. Rarely do I turn away from a warbler displaying in plain sight; I did it regularly on Monhegan.
And I should point out that I am not making any of this up. As it turns out, songbird fallouts are a lot like fish tales — exaggerated or even apocryphal. Birders often talk of finding spruces, adorned with warblers, “lit up like Christmas trees,” which I’ve seen only a couple of times in four decades of birding. Yes, fallouts like this happen, but not as often anymore because there aren’t as many songbirds anymore. A new generation of birdwatchers may never see anything like what happened on Monhegan Island last week.
The irony is that we rejoice in the songbirds’ misfortune. As it turned out, the same weather system that blew warblers out to Monhegan Island also brought waves of songbirds to much of the Northeast in late May. And perhaps the greater irony is that millions of people who went about their business those mornings never noticed the warblers in their own backyards and parks. So maybe the songbirds’ misfortune is ours as well.
Each spring, billions of birds migrate so near to us and yet so far from our recognition or understanding. Along the way, they navigate our littered landscapes: wetlands filled for shopping malls, forests cleared for condominiums, prairies razed for corn, and mountaintops blasted away for coal. The birds, far fewer as a result, migrate nonetheless. And we can be reminded of their perilous journeys when we hear them sing overhead right now or we take the time to watch them in our trees.
Or even when the fog might deliver to us such euphoria that we are obligated to hold these castaways aloft and protect them for as long as we walk this earth.
A Gallery of Grounded Songbirds
Monhegan Island, Maine / May 19 and 20, 2019
(Click any image for a big view or to start a slideshow.)
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