For the Birds – Fall Migrant Flight Calls and Seabirds
Flight calls of migrating birds
Fall migration is well underway now. You no doubt have noticed birds in the morning that weren’t there the day before. A great way to experience the fall migration is with your ears. Go out on a clear night with little wind. Shortly after dusk you will be able to her the chip notes of unseen migrants above. On a good night, a river of birds will pass over, with most individuals giving away their presence with distinctive flight calls. The migrant river may flow all night although much of the migration occurs before midnight.
Just hearing the migrating birds is thrill enough. However, it is possible with practice to identify migrating birds by their characteristic notes. Some species give flight calls that are similar or even identical to call notes they give on the ground. Others, like the thrushes, have distinctive flight calls that are only given while in flight. A great resource for learning these calls is a CD-ROM titled Flight Calls of Migratory Birds, put together by Bill Evans and Michael O’Brien. The CD has recordings of the flight calls of 211 eastern landbirds. You can find more information at: http://www.oldbird.org/. The website also gives directions on making an inexpensive recording apparatus using such high-tech equipment as plastic flower pots, a plastic dinner plate and saran wrap. Another site with some recordings of flight calls can be found at: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/birdcalls
Fall is a great time to look for seabirds in the Gulf of Maine. The term seabird does not refer to a particular taxonomic group of birds but rather to birds that spend most of the year on or above the ocean well out of sight of land. All of the tube-noses (albatrosses, shearwater, storm-petrels) are seabirds. Northern Gannets and their relatives are properly called seabirds. Some sandpipers, the Red Phalarope and Red-necked Phalarope, are seabirds. Among the gulls, Sabine’s Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes to a lesser degree are encountered only offshore outside of the breeding season. Skuas (two species in Maine) and jaegers (three species in Maine) are gull relatives that typically occur on open water for most of the year. Five of the six species of auks that nest in the western Atlantic (Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill, Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre and Dovekie) winter at sea. The Black Guillemot is our only auk that can be reliably seen from shore in every month of the year.
The seabird community of the Gulf of Maine is an interesting mix of species like Atlantic Puffin that nest abundantly from Newfoundland south to Maine, species like the Dovekie that nest at high latitudes and the jaegers that nest broadly on the arctic tundra. Leach’s Storm-Petrels nest along the shores of the Gulf of Maine while the similar Wilson’s Storm-Petrel breeds in the southern oceans and disperses to the northern hemisphere during the austral winter. Our two most common shearwaters, Greater Shearwater and Sooty Shearwater, also nest in the southern hemisphere.
There are several ways that you can see some of these seabirds. One easy way is to go on a whale-watching cruise. These boats go offshore far enough to find whales and that is usually far enough to see seabirds. A second option is to take a ferry ride aboard the Cat from Bar Harbor to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. By crossing the Gulf of Maine twice you will have great chances to see many of our seabird species.
Maine Audubon offers an annual seabird trip out of Bar Harbor. This year’s trip will be on September 29 from 6 AM until 2 PM. The boat used this year will be a fast 110-foot power catamaran so a lot of territory can be covered. Contact Margi Huber (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information.
[Originally published on September 22, 2007]