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Friday, September 30, 2011

Another reason to remember September

All was quiet in my yard late this afternoon.  The sun had dipped almost behind the line of trees to the west of the backyard.  In a few parts of the yard, its rays still touched trees or shrubs.

The birds were quiet.  I was watching the flight of the Chimney Swifts overhead and idly attending to the constant battle of the hummingbirds.  There were at least three chasing each other about.  The cardinals were at the feeders enjoying their bedtime snacks and the mockingbirds were still patrolling the yard.  I was taking it all in and reflecting on the fact that I had not seen any White-winged Doves in the yard in more than a week.  Periodically through the year, these doves abandon my yard and this seems to be one of those periods.  All was normal for a late afternoon in autumn and I wasn't expecting to see anything unusual.  And then, I did!

From the shrubbery along the fence, I heard an unfamiliar "chuck."   It was only unfamiliar in the sense that I don't usually hear it in my yard, but I thought I knew what it was.  I started looking for the source of the sound, scanning the shrubs with my binoculars.  And suddenly, there it was - big as life and twice as beautiful. A Brown Thrasher.

Now, Brown Thrashers are high on my list of favorite birds and I'm always hoping to see them in my yard, but I almost never do.  They only ever visit me during migration and not often then.  It had been a couple of years since I had seen one here and that was during spring migration.  But there he was sitting among my shrubbery with a huge insect - apparently a cicada - in his beak.

I knew that if I went inside for the camera he would disappear, but when he dropped down to the ground to consume his meal, I had to try.  I ran for the camera and came back outside and tried to locate him again.  I finally did.  He was in the shrubs again but mostly hidden by limbs.  I couldn't get a clear shot at him with the camera and the light was fading fast.  I had to acknowledge defeat, but then defeat and I are old acquaintances when it comes to trying to photograph birds.

His visit just reinforced for me what a remarkable month this has been in my backyard.  In addition to my usual birds, I've had a Rufous Hummingbird, a (probable) Black-chinned Hummingbird, Yellow-breasted Chats, Baltimore Orioles, just to name a few of the standouts.  And now at the very end of the month, almost at the last hour of daylight, I get a Brown Thrasher!  Sometimes the life of a Backyard Birder is very good indeed.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Winter finch forecast

Ron Pittaway, a Canadian field ornithologist, is famous among birders for the forecast which he publishes each fall indicating the status of various finches and other irruptive bird species and the likelihood of whether they will wander farther south during the coming winter.  Mr. Pittaway's projections are based on the availability of food that the finches like, mostly the cones of evergreens.  In years when the cone crop is sparse, the birds tend to wander farther south.  When a bountiful cone crop occurs, the birds will stay closer to home.

Mr. Pittaway's forecast for the coming winter is now out and, if it proves to be correct, we probably won't be seeing any unusual irruptions of these winter birds this far south this year.  It seems that the cone crop in the boreal forests of the north have been pretty good this year so there seems little reason for the birds to travel too far south.

His projection includes such birds as the Pine Siskin, Purple Finch, and Red-breasted Nuthatch that are familiar to our area, as well as many finches, like Evening Grosbeaks, the Common and Hoary Redpolls, and the Red and White-winged Crossbills that are unlikely ever to come this far south.   In truth, his forecast is mainly meant for Canadian and Northeastern U.S. birders anyway, but I always find it interesting to read.

We've been lucky in the last two or three winters in getting a good irruption of Pine Siskins along with our dependable influx of American Goldfinches.  A couple of years ago, I also had Red-breasted Nuthatches in the yard during winter, the first time I had recorded them here.  I can expect to see Purple Finches perhaps every two or three years.  It's been a couple of years since I've seen one in the yard, so maybe this winter will be their time to return.  The coming of the winter birds is just one more reason to look forward to the changing of the seasons.  

Friday, September 23, 2011

Still sweeping the sky (Updated 09/24)

When I was a kid, we used to call them Chimney Sweeps, a misunderstanding of the bird's name but a not illogical one since they made their nests and their roosts in chimneys and other such cylindrical, open-to-the-sky places.  Their true name, of course, as I now know is Chimney Swift, the little bird with a body shaped like a cigar and with long swept-back wings that carry them barreling through the summer skies as if something were chasing them.  If something were chasing them, it is unlikely it would catch them because these birds live up to their name.  They are swift.  They are also one of my favorite summer birds and one of the last to leave us in autumn.

The swifts nest in our chimney each summer and they did again this summer, apparently very successfully because the afternoon sky over my yard was filled with 8 - 10 of the birds for a while after the babies fledged.  There are fewer here now and I'm not sure if they are part of the family that nested or if they are migrants from farther north now passing through.  But every night, after dinner, I hear their voices as they settle down in the chimney.  Whenever I'm out during the day, especially on my early morning walk, they are busy plying the skies looking for insects and chattering away to each other in their inimitable voices.  It is a happy sound and it makes me happy just to hear it.

The swifts typically arrive in April and they often linger far into the fall.  I often see them here well into October.  But today is the first day of autumn and so their time with us for this year is drawing to its end.  Sometime within the next few weeks they will be heading south once more to the western parts of north and central South America where they will spend the winter months.  They are birds that live on the wing and that make their living by capturing flying insects and so they must go where the quantity of flying insects is reliable in order to make it through the coming months.

But they'll be back.  Sometime in early April I'll be outside working in my garden and I'll hear that happy voice once again.  I'll look up and see the little cigar-shaped swift sweeping the skies over my yard once again and I'll know that spring has truly arrived.

UPDATE 09/24:  Today there are more than a dozen of the little swifts scouring the skies over my yard.  Obviously, some new migrants blew in last night.  I wouldn't expect them to stick around for very long.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Quiet time

It was a lot quieter in the yard today.  Many of the migrants that had been a part of the scene over the last couple of weeks seem to have moved on.  Not the hummers though.  There were still perhaps ten of the little guys (as best I could count) hanging around today and chasing each other through the shrubbery, including the little tail-twitcher who might be a Black-chinned.  The female Rufous that was here earlier, though, has definitely moved on.

The birds that remain, other than the hummers, are going about their business rather quietly.  There are no extended bursts of singing, just a soft twitter now and then, unless the Blue Jays spy the Cooper's Hawk lurking about, of course.  Then pandemonium reigns until the hawk is routed and sent on his way.

The birds are still hitting the bird feeders hard.  After I refill them, the seeds last for about two days.  Then it's time to fill up again.

I've noticed, too, that even some of the wild feed in my yard is disappearing more quickly than usual this summer.

The pokeberries, which are a soft berry much favored by Northern Mockingbirds, in particular, are long gone.

But I noticed just yesterday that the beautyberries, which are hard berries that usually last into winter, have already been devoured as well.  I have several of the shrubs that have these purple berries and they are usually the last of the wild fruit to go.  I suspect that not only the birds but some of the small mammals have been eating them this summer.

The birds, in the past, have shown a preference for the white variety of beautyberry.  I only have one shrub which has the white berries and they were all picked clean by the middle of last week.

One seed crop which may be a boon to winter birds this year is the crape myrtle.  The seeds of this ubiquitous shrub/tree are highly favored by members of the finch family and, in fact, by all of my backyard seed-eating birds.  The crapes have been full of blooms this summer and should have an excellent crop of seeds this winter if we can just restrain gardeners from committing "crape murder" by topping their trees.  It really is important to leave these seeds for the birds to eat.  There'll still be plenty of time to prune your crape myrtle - if you insist on it - in the late winter.

The American Goldfinches generally spend weeks in the late fall picking out crape myrtle seeds before they ever turn to my thistle and sunflower seed feeders.

If you've got seeds or berries in your landscape plants, be sure you leave them for the birds and other animals to munch on.  Don't even think of pruning them off now.  This year, more than ever, wildlife will need them.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Is it a Black-chinned?

Ruby-throated and Black-chinned Hummingbirds are very close relatives and very difficult to tell apart in the wild.  Well, I'd better qualify that.  If you happen to get an adult male Ruby-throat and an adult male Black-chinned side by side in just the right light, then you would have no trouble telling them apart.  The Black-chinned's throat is actually purple if you see it with the light shining on it, and the Ruby-throat's is, well, ruby-red.  But it is not often that you will have such an ideal situation in which to identify your hummers.  It is more likely that you will have the situation I was faced with today.

There was a flock of the little birds darting around me as I walked into my backyard.  As best I could count, there were about ten.  The rule of thumb for birders in our area is that every hummingbird that we see is a Ruby-throat until proved otherwise, but it has been an unusual migration season so far and I know I've had at least one Rufous Hummingbird in my yard which I reported on here last week.  I know that Black-chinned Hummingbirds have also been reported in the area, although I'm always suspicious of such reports simply because it is so difficult to distinguish them from Ruby-throats.  Nevertheless, I have been on the lookout for a Black-chinned in my yard.  Today I think I might have found one.

Again, as with the Rufous, rather than the distinctively colored male, I have the more ambiguously colored female.  The thing which drew my attention to her was not her coloring but her behavior.  She acted different than the other birds.  Specifically, I noticed that she was often pumping her tail as she flew about, and even after she perched, in a way that is not common with Ruby-throats.  Then I took a closer look at her as she perched and began to notice some subtle differences.

For one thing, the length and curve of the wings.  The Black-chinned's wings are broad and curved whereas the Ruby-throat's are narrow and straight.

Also, the bill of the BCH is slightly longer than the RTH.  It's hard to judge without another bird sitting next to it for comparison, I know, but this bird's bill seemed longer to me.

This shows the shape of the wing a little better and it also shows the back which in the BCH is a duller green than the more iridescent RTH.

Here, you see her with her wings folded and they look pretty straight, but she's also giving that little tail pump which she was doing pretty constantly.

A somewhat better view of that curved wing which reaches just about to the tip of the tail and of the long beak.

 Again, she's pumping her tail.

The voice of the bird is no help in identifying her as the voices of the BCH and RTH are virtually identical.

So, do I have a Black-chinned Hummingbird in my yard?  I'd be a lot happier and a lot more definite if I had an unmistakable adult male, but yes, I think I do.  She's a female and the differences between her and the Ruby-throats in the yard are subtle, but when you see them together they are noticeable.

On the other hand, it wouldn't be the first time I tried to see something that wasn't there.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The deadliest season

Migration seasons, spring and fall, are among the most deadly times of year for songbirds.  Many of these birds fly thousands of miles through territory they've never been in before, guided only by their instincts and the earth's magnetism.  They face the hazards of predators and finding sufficient food to keep them going and finding shelter from harsh weather.  For many if not most, however, the most serious hazards they will face will be barriers erected by humans.  Although the structures were not intended as barriers, to a migrating bird, flying mostly at night, that is exactly what the huge glass skyscrapers that are a feature of so many cities are.

It is estimated that 90,000 migrating birds are killed each year by flying into buildings in New York City alone.  Nobody knows for sure, of course, and the total could be much higher.  The nation-wide death toll is projected at about a billion birds, but, again, that estimate may be on the low side.  What is known for sure is that this represents a true avian holocaust.

Conservationists, concerned architects and city officials are trying to find solutions that will at least ameliorate the problem.  Around the country, several cities' Planning Commissions, such as San Francisco, are adopting bird-friendly ordinances in their rules for new buildings and remodeling projects.  In Washington, legislation is pending that would make federal buildings incorporate bird-friendly designs.  In addition, some manufacturers are exploring glass designs that use ultraviolet signals visible only to birds.  Such initiatives are still in their infancy but do hold some promise for the future.   For the present, though, opaque or translucent films, decals, dot patterns, shades, mesh screens — even nets — are the main options available to architects, designers, and home owners, and, admittedly, these are not very attractive alternatives.  Perhaps they are more attractive than a yard full of dead birds, though.

What makes the problem even worse is the lights that are often left on through the night in these glass buildings.  They disorient the birds and lead them straight into the sides of the buildings with deadly results.  Many buildings in New York now participate in a project called Lights Out New York which simply means they turn their lights off at night.  Other big cities like Toronto, Boston, and Chicago have similar lights out programs and these are proving effective.

The National Audubon Society and other bird conservation groups are making this a priority in their advocacy for birds, and it is gratifying to see that cities are responding positively.   It is believed by most ornithologists that birds' deaths from crashing into buildings are second only to habitat loss as a threat to the survival of birds as a species.  It is noteworthy that both hazards - destruction of habitat through development and glass buildings as barriers - are human-made.  The greatest threat to avian survival is humans.  

Monday, September 12, 2011

The old apple tree

The old apple tree is dying.  We planted it after we moved here more than 20 years ago and throughout its productive life, it has been a favorite of birds, squirrels, and, in spring when it is in bloom, of bees.  But never has it been more popular with the birds than now, when it is dying.  Plants under stress attract insects and insects attract birds and so the tree is almost never without its visitors these days.

It's especially popular with the little Downy Woodpeckers that live in my backyard.  Sometimes I'll see the whole family, the adults and two juveniles, there at once.  This is the adult female.

If this were the male bird, it would have a red spot just at the base of that black cap in back.  All of the males of the species of woodpeckers that live in our area have at least some red on the head.

Here, you can see many of the holes left in the bark by woodpeckers checking for insects.

But it's not just the woodpeckers that favor the dying tree.

Northern Mockingbirds hunt here and squabble over ownership of the tree.  Of course, mockingbirds tend to squabble over just about anything!

White-winged Doves like to rest among its branches.

And lately, the little female Rufous Hummingbird has adopted it as her vantage point from which to guard and protect "her" section of the backyard.   She launches herself furiously into the air whenever another of the several hummers now in the yard invades her space.

Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Blue Jays, Carolina Wrens, and Tufted Titmice pass through the branches of the old tree throughout the day in a continual colorful parade.  It was there a few days ago where I saw the first year Baltimore Oriole that was visiting my yard.  This fall or winter, the apple tree will have to come down before it becomes in danger of falling.  Then I'll have to find a worthy replacement for this long-time resident of my backyard.  The birds will demand it.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A week to remember

It has been an exciting week in the backyard.  There has been a constant stream of migrants, in addition to my permanent resident birds, to entertain me.

Most exciting, of course, has been the Rufous Hummingbird that I told you about yesterday, but before that, the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers had arrived and they continue to ply their trade here at week's end.

Not unlike the hummingbirds, and not much bigger than them, the little gnatcatcher is constantly in motion and it is difficult to get a good picture of the bird among the leaves where it hunts for its food, but I was finally able to get this shot.  Gorgeous little creature!  But the gnatcatcher was only the beginning.

Yesterday, as I was outside watching the Rufous Hummingbird, as well as the other hummingbirds, hoping I might find a Black-chinned or another anomaly among them, I heard a call from the area of the big pine trees which are behind our property.  I trained my binoculars on the spot from which I thought the sound had emanated and what to my wondering eyes did appear,  not one, not two, but THREE Yellow-breasted Chats!  They were scouring the trunk of a dead pine tree (several of them have died in the drought) for bugs.

Now, the Yellow-breasted Chat is one of my "marker" birds of spring migration.  It is a bird whose quirky calls and behavior are emblazoned on my memory from childhood when I used to be entertained by their antics in the trees around our farm, and  I always look forward to seeing and hearing it in the spring.  But this last spring I waited for it in vain.  I never saw or even heard a single bird passing through my neighborhood.

I never see these birds during fall migration for the simple reason that one usually hears one before one sees it and, in fall, migrating birds are usually silent.  The flocks have been likened to a retreating army that wants to get out of town as quickly and quietly as possible.  It's not a bad analogy, but for whatever reason, one of the chats chose to announce its presence yesterday afternoon and so I was able to see my old friends, at least briefly.  I tried to get a picture of the birds but they were too far away for the lens I had on the camera, so the only picture remains the one I stored in my mind.

Shortly after I saw the chats and was still smiling from that observation, I was sitting in my favorite backyard chair looking at nothing in particular when a flash of yellow caught my eye.  I focused my vision on the spot, a branch of the old apple tree, thinking that one of the chats had flown into the yard and I might still get a picture, but it wasn't a chat.  It was the size of a Red-winged Blackbird but much more colorful.  It was, however, one of the blackbird's cousins.  I recognized it immediately from its size and posture, the size and color of its beak, and the color pattern of the feathers.  It was a Baltimore Oriole!  It was not the distinctively and unmistakably colored adult male of the species.  I wasn't sure at first if what I was seeing was  an adult female or a first year male.  It wasn't until I was able to consult my field guide later that I confirmed for myself that it was a first year male, not yet as bright as his father but a beautiful and unforgettable bird.

Did I get a picture of him?  Surely you jest!  By the time I got my camera in my hands and raised and focused it, he flew, taking cover in some dense shrubs at the back of my yard.  I never got a clear view of him again.

It was just one of the memorable days of this memorable week of backyard birding.  To cap it off, late in the day, I heard a Pine Warbler singing.  The Pine Warbler is one of the three signature warblers of my yard in winter, along with the Orange-crowned Warbler and the Yellow-rumped Warbler.  His trill was a reminder that, though the summer seems endless, autumn and winter really are coming.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

An unexpected visitor

The change in the weather this week has brought a new wave of migrants to the yard.  Recently my yard had been almost devoid of hummingbirds.  Only two or three remained, but yesterday, I could count six in the backyard alone and if I could count six, for sure, there were probably several more than that around.  The little guys are so active and so fast that it is hard to get an accurate count, but I saw six individuals in one glance so I know there were at least that many.

And in those six individuals, there was one that was not like the others.

As I watched the birds joust for position, I noticed that one was particularly vocal and that her vocalizations were different from what I'm used to hearing from Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.  Finally, I was able to get a fix on her with the binoculars and I could see that, in fact, it was a female Rufous Hummingbird, the very first one I have ever recorded in my yard!

Excitedly, I ran into the house to get my camera and spent the next hour or so trying desperately to get a recognizable and usable picture of the bird.

  My first efforts were not terribly successful.  The light was always wrong, but here at least you can get a sense of her rufous sides and the typical iridescent orange spot on the throat.

  When she took flight, I could see a bit more of her rufous coloring.

Finally, I got lucky when the bird went to feed on a 'Texas Star' hibiscus plant.  She was in the sunlight then and I was able to get a series of shots that showed her identifiable field marks.

She approaches a blossom.

And moves in for a snack.

Again, here you can see the rufous on her wings.

She really gets into her meal!

She backs off to come from another angle.

Wonderful little bird!

She really enjoyed that hibiscus blossom.

Rufous Hummingbirds have the reputation of being perhaps the feistiest, most cantankerous member of a very feisty, cantankerous family.  This little lady did nothing to diminish that reputation.  She staked out a spot in the old apple tree near a large Hamelia patens (hummingbird bush) that is absolutely full of the tubular red blossoms that hummingbirds love and she defended that spot against all comers all day long.  She frequently went to the hummingbird bush to feed and chased away any of the other hummers who tried to horn in.

The Rufous is a western hummingbird.  This is not a normal part of its range, but it does wander during migration.  Also, in recent years, it has been expanding its range, and more and more it is being seen in our area.  These hummers can tolerate colder weather than our resident Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and they have been known to spend the winter in this area.  For the past couple of years, there have been Rufous Hummingbirds reported in my zip code on the Great Backyard Bird Count which takes place in February every year.  Wouldn't it be something if my little visitor decided to stay and I were able to list her on my GBBC report next February?

Well, I can dream, but for now I am just thrilled to have been able to report her here in September.  It was a very exciting day for the Backyard Birder!  

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A change in the weather

Up early today for my morning walk, I was delighted to discover that there had been a change in the weather overnight.  No rain - that would have been too much to hope for - but cool, pleasant, autumn-like temperatures had arrived.  The temperature was 58 degrees F, territory that we hadn't been in since early spring, as we set off down the street, and the thirty minute walk barely even raised a sweat!

The lower temperatures were a great relief to morning walkers but think what a relief they must be also to birds and other wildlife that have suffered through this long, long, hot, hot summer.  Yes, it would have been nice if the cooler weather had been accompanied by some rain, but I won't look a gift weatherman in the mouth.

Birds were mostly quiet during today's walk, but I did hear one voice in the neighborhood that I don't hear every day.  It was a very loud voice, the ringing call of our largest woodpecker, the Pileated Woodpecker.

These big, crow-sized birds are permanent residents here and their population seems to be stable, but they are so stealthy and secretive that they are seldom seen.  Their presence is more often known by the sound of that distinctive call.  It may well be that their secretive nature is part of the reason for their success and why they haven't gone the way of the even bigger Ivory-billed Woodpecker which seems to be most likely extinct on the North American continent.

For all its secretiveness, the Pileated is fairly tolerant of human activity and, if left unmolested, will live quite successfully in parks frequented by humans or even in suburban neighborhoods like mine.  My neighborhood features the kind of habitat that the birds like, with its mixed conifer and hardwood forest (what there is left of it).  Pileateds are pretty adaptable, apparently, and will utilize a wide variety of species of trees.  They have even been photographed visiting backyard bird feeders, although, to my knowledge, I've never had one visit any of my feeders.

One consequence of our long drought is a lot of dead trees and this should be a boon to birds like the Pileated Woodpecker.  They normally nest in a dead tree, excavating a large cavity in it.  They and all the other woodpeckers will have plenty to choose from next spring.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The finches come calling

In previous years, I've never had House Finches in my yard on a regular basis, even though they are permanent residents in the area and are frequently visitors to feeders elsewhere.  I've often pondered just what it was about my yard that the beautiful birds didn't like.

Well, whatever it was, it seems to have disappeared this year.  I've had House Finches residing in the yard all year long.  Recently, when we head out on our morning walk early in the day, there are almost always 4 - 6 of the birds at my front yard feeder.  They seem to prefer to visit the feeders early in the morning.

I took this picture of two of the birds today as they shared the feeder with a female Northern Cardinal.

The scruffy condition of both the finches and the cardinal indicates that they are still in the middle of their molt.  In a few weeks, they will be sleek, colorful, and beautiful, with every feather in place once again.

  There have been numerous reports of finches suffering from avian pox in the area this summer, but, so far, the birds in my yard appear to have escaped the dreadful disease.

House Finches were originally birds of the southwestern United States, but in 1940, some birds that had been illegally obtained for the caged bird trade were released into the wild in New York when the owners feared they would be found out and prosecuted.  The adaptable birds survived in the wild and prospered in the East.  Today, finches are resident in all of the lower 48 states.  It is likely that the birds might have finally reached all those states on their own, as a result of natural migratory wanderings, but the fact is, they did get a major assist from human greed in colonizing new territories.

They are welcome visitors most everywhere they go.  Their cheery songs make a joyful noise in the yard.  The only potential down side to their expanding range is that in some places they are in competition with their cousins, the Purple Finches, which have been declining in recent years, possibly at least partly because of their territorial disputes with House Finches.  

In my yard at least, they are not in competition with Purple Finches, although I do occasionally get a wandering Purple Finch in the yard in winter.  Here, the House Finches are a wonderful addition to the avian population of my yard.  It always makes me smile to see them.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A pretty backyard visitor

While watching hummingbirds feeding in my backyard this afternoon, another tiny bird flashed across my field of vision.  Not much bigger than the hummingbirds, it was a very active little bird, darting in and out among the leaves, never resting long enough to give me a good look.  I thought I knew what it was but I waited patiently until it finally showed itself fully as it flitted into the air chasing a tiny insect.  I had been right.  It was a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, certainly one of the most attractive of backyard birds.  I ran into the house to get the camera, hoping to get a picture of the bird, but, of course, by the time I returned, it had moved on.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are allegedly present in this area all summer and are said to be permanent residents along the coast, but I almost never see them except during migration season.  The last one I had seen in my yard had been in spring, and now, with another migration season, here they are once again.

These little birds look a bit like miniature mockingbirds, except bluer.  They have relatively long tails which they flick from side-to-side as they scour the leaves for insects.  The tail has a white outer feather on each side which may make it more visible to insects and tend to startle them into flight.  The bird feeds just about exclusively on insects, generally very small insects, but it may catch some larger ones which it beats against a branch to dispatch and to help dismember before eating them.

Gnatcatchers are fun to watch because they are so active, never still, always darting about in search of the next insect snack.  I hope they will tarry in my yard for a while and give me a chance to watch them a bit longer.  Maybe next time I'll even get a picture.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Birds migrate at night

'Tis September, the season of migration, a magical time that has often inspired poets.

Today, I came across this poem by Jan Haag and I decided to share it with you, because it is true.  Birds do migrate at night, and if you go outside at night and are quiet and listen, you may hear them by the thousands passing over your head.  On moonlit nights, you may even see them or see their silhouettes against the moon.  Twice a year, spring and autumn, on fragile but powerful wings, they make this trip, through the night, while the world sleeps.


                               by Jan Haag

Birds migrate at night.
Be quiet, listen carefully:
you can hear the lift and fall of the wings,
two notes of a song,
you can see the black images bisect
the retina of the moon,
you can guess their pattern, their flight
their destination
far away to the south in winter,
north in spring.

You can hear the lift and fall of the wings,
the single cry of a mate,
millions of birds flying through
darkness over the sea and the land
in silence, through the sleep
of other creatures.
You can guess their pattern, their flight:
formations of birds in the night,
covering the sky with the grid of their wings
making the stars blink -- intermittent.

Millions of birds flying through
as you stand on the shore in the night
over the glittering, rattled ladders of shale
hearing their wings and their flight.
You are used to rain-pattered roofs, the drumming,
as abundant and isolated as tears in the night.
You can guess their pattern, their flight.
But the birds fly in silence,
swift as the wind,
invisible to the casual eye.

Over the glittering, rattled ladders of shale
the birds cross, tangential to the sea at night.
Hour upon hour you can sense the undulation of wings.
If you lift your cheek quite carefully
you can feel the kiss and the wisp of air
stirred by the inaudible glide.
You can guess their pattern, their flight,
and, once or twice in the night, sense
the splash of a songbird's spent body caught
in the sea's phosphorescence.