Nature Notes

September 10, 1998

The fall is under way; the great migration is heating up. During the next four weeks, the skies and seas will be teeming with all matter of winged and finned things heading south. The push is on.

Thus far, it's been mostly shorebirds, though a few warblers have been moving and there have been waves of swallows, flickers, robins, and catbirds passing through.

On Saturday, an ovenbird flew into a window at the Pollock house in Northwest and crumpled to the ground. It could have been a sign that one of those great nighttime moonlit warbler flights was in the offing; it could have been that the ovenbird was shooed up by a passing hawk - itself a sign of migration in progress.

A Flight Of Swallows

Only a few hawks have been seen thus far; their flight is only in the rudimentary stages. One morning last week, a merlin in fully adult plumage hurtled past the Pantigo Place building in East Hampton where the writer works. It was on a west-by-southwesterly course.

On Friday near Mecox Bay on the ocean, Eric Salzman was all of a sudden surrounded by swallows, almost all of them tree swallows. They were descending to perches, utility wires, and the like when they abruptly stopped and rose back into the air in a swirling mass.

A small hawk, most likely a sharpshin, whizzed at them from the east. They were off to the west in a flash.

Apparently these swallows were not ready to leave, for after ditching the hawk they started flying back along the ocean in an easterly direction - singletons and doubletons at first, then in larger and larger groups.

Slipped Away

Many would-be migrators are stocking up on carbohydrates. For three weeks, three orioles, two males and a female, had been in the Kuhn yard south of Montauk Highway at the west edge of Amagansett, feeding and carrying on, perhaps the same three that fledged out of a nest at that location two months earlier.

Last Thursday, they slipped away. Are they on their way to the tropics? Would it be for the first time?

In the Van Sickle garden in Springs, an oriole was busy systematically pecking a hole in each cherry tomato. It would have ruined every one of them at the rate it was going, were it not for John interceding and waving it away.

On The Flyway

We happen to be part of the Atlantic Flyway. All of the birds, insects, and bats that migrate south from the Canadian Maritimes, from Maine, and from the rest of eastern New England, use the flyway.

Most of the night-flying bird migrants fly over us without stopping, unless forced down by weather. On a still night one can hear them chipping as they go by.

They are in vast, mixed flocks: warblers, vireos, thrushes, and larger songbirds. They use the moon, stars, following winds, air mass layers, geomagnetism, and other signs and props to guide them and help them along.

Eastern Long Island's position near the bottom of the migratory funnel is especially relevant for day fliers. It seems that a good many hawks, herons, nighthawks, swallows, bats, and migrating butterflies that begin their exodus at some point near the Atlantic Ocean north of us are destined to pass by here.

Not Lifting A Feather

The soaring raptors are an exception. Only a few of the broad-winged hawks, red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, turkey vultures, golden eagles, and bald eagles fly our way. The vast majority move westerly until they pick up the Hudson Valley and the north-south-trending valley systems west of the Hudson.

They can soar on updraft thermals pushed by northerly winds for hundreds of miles in a day without lifting a feather. That is why places like Hawk Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania are ideal for migratory-hawk watching.

Literally thousands of hawks per day herd past these observation points during the peak of migration.

Prey And Predator

Eastern Long Island, on the other hand, is the ideal place to watch the non-soaring hawks during migration. These ones feed as they fly. They fly low, following the coastline, especially the Atlantic coastline, which takes them to New Jersey and points south.

Most of these are bird hawks - the Cooper's hawk, peregrine falcon, sharpshinned hawk, and merlin. They chase the birds along the way. In many cases, prey and predator both fly in the same direction, which makes it convenient for the predators, adventuresome for the prey.

A few, the kestrel and northern harrier, are mostly after rodents; they are apt to find them in the duney edges behind the sea.

These hawks and their prey, as well as the monarch butterflies, various dragonflies, and bats (particularly dayfliers such as the red bat, down from New England and points north), pile up on our shores. They are readily observable as they move along from east to west, five to 50 feet above the ground.

Go West, Hawk-Watcher

Such being the case, it goes without saying that the farther west along the ocean, the more hawks, monarchs, and swallows one will see.

And that is the case. At the peak of the hawk movement, the next-to-last week in September in most years, an observer situated on some South Fork ocean dune in the afternoon is liable to count 25 to 50 hawks in an hour, while an observer at Jones Beach during the same hour will count more than 100.

The majority of these, 75 percent or so, will be kestrels. Sharpshins and merlin are the next most frequent, Cooper's hawks, peregrines, and northern harriers the least common.

Fortunately for the observer, not all of the soaring hawks use the internal flyway. A few fly along the coast, and are readily observed.

Close-Up

Ospreys, too, move along the coast, and can be counted in with the others.

The wonderful thing about seeing these hawks pass among the dunes is that they are very close when they shoot by. One can easily identify them with the naked eye, tell the young from the adults, and watch their marvelous flight mechanics.

They are at their best when it's sunny and there is an onshore breeze. Binoculars always help.

The East End is near the bottom of the funnel for some migrators, as described above, but there are places at the very bottom of the funnel that are the most ideal observation points imaginable.

Cape May: The Best

One such is Cape May, N.J., on the north side of the inlet to Delaware Bay. Cape May is at the bottom of a flyway funnel which includes the coastal fliers that pass along our shores and the high flyers that soar down the Hudson Valley and valleys to the west. It is also a landing point for night flights from eastern Canada, northern New York, and New England.

In short, there's hardly a better place on the East Coast for sampling the fall migration than Cape May, and if at Cape May, there's no better time than the last week of September and first week of October to do your sampling.