Tuesday, October 5, 2010

White-throated Pioneer

Norfolk, Virginia

When the weather cools, we head for the sun. It is a pattern known to travelers but it is seen to an even greater degree in the natural world with birds. Songbirds that nest in the vast boreal forests of the northern hemisphere follow the warmer weather south throughout fall migrations. While this goes on obscurely to most of us, in some areas the geography funnels the billions of birds into our lives. Some of the best places to meet these migrants is on ships.

Songbirds typically migrate at night in order to avoid daytime predators, strong winds and to read the directory of the night sky. Unfortunately in their drive south, they may occasionally launch themselves over open water with no place to land when the sun rises and reveals their predicament. Morning brings exhaustion so they land where they can and that is often on passing ships.

White-throated sparrows migrating down the east coast of America can often find themselves in this situation as the coastline cuts away to the west as they fly south. They normally stop their migrations once they reach the south states, but in one instance, I sailed with a white-throat to the edge of its universe and back.

Arriving on ship off Cape Hatteras the little bird made a fine living off the crumbs and spills enjoying free passage to Barbados. That island however remains a place where no white-throat has ever been spotted since it stayed on ship that day- and every day until we returned to Norfolk. Upon arrival to its intended over wintering grounds, the songbird made its way inland after an epic detour for a white-throated pioneer.

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