This phenomenon, beautiful and intricate in detail, scope and scale, is hardwired in the evolutionary psyche of so many creatures we share the planet with that sometimes we forget to revel in the magic and mystery of it, finding it easier to hubristically acknowledge that migration is basically the annual or seasonal movement of certain animals from breeding grounds to wintering grounds. That way we don’t have to try and answer the question of how is it possible for a monarch butterfly weighing .026 ounces with a wingspan of 4 inches to leave it’s home in North America in late summer or early fall and travel 3,000 miles or more to Mexico to overwinter in the same place that its great, great ancestor did the winter before.
Peter Matthiessen, first in his Shorebirds of North America, and then when Shorebirds was shortened and reissued as The Wind Birds, helped to point out in simple prose the astonishing feats of peeps and plovers and other shorebirds that birders of the day simply associated with this marsh or that mudflat. Then as ornithologists and researchers became more intrigued and technology provided tiny geolocators, stories began to surface of bar-tailed godwits taking off on 7,000-mile nonstop sojourns and sooty shearwaters making a figure-eight roundtrip migration of more than 40,000 miles.
Today, wind birds are still a harbinger of migration, and they are passing through right now. Recent reports on Carolina birds include buff-breasted sandpipers, pectoral sandpipers, semipalmated plovers, least sandpipers and semipalmated sandpipers, plus lots more are pouring in from sod farms near Orangeburg, S.C. These are the same species that are beginning to show up at Super Sod farm on Hooper Lane in Henderson County or at Rankin Bottoms Wildlife Management Area in Cocke County, Tenn.
The elegant, swift, strong flying wind birds are also joined by a multitude of warblers, thrushes, grosbeaks, flycatchers, vireos and more as the eons-old urge to migrate takes hold. One great place to get a glimpse of passerine (songbird) migration is Ridge Junction Overlook at the entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park at milepost 355.5.
Another intriguing aspect of fall migration is diurnal migrants. Wind birds, ducks, geese and most passerine migrants are nocturnal migrants. It is believed that the cover of darkness provides protection from predators plus may offer easier celestial navigation. But for large-bodied birds like hawks, eagles, ospreys etc., the heat of the day is the key to migration. Theses birds rely on thermals and updrafts to make their southerly journey easier. The most common diurnal migrant in the East is the broad-winged hawk. And one of the best places in the region to get a glimpse of broad-winged hawk migration is Caesar’s Head State Park, located on U.S. 276 in South Carolina, just south of Brevard. About 12,000 broad-winged hawks will pass through Caesar’s head from late August through late September.
We are not migrant — unless your family left you a house in Florida and a house in the mountains. But as the morning sun rises later, and the evening sun sets earlier, and the white light of summer turns to soft orange of autumn, don’t be surprised if you get the urge to go somewhere.