From the Editor

They Fly by Night

May 2015

colin08Do you like to travel by night? Maine’s dismal, curvy roads can be daunting.

That’s why what songbirds do is so incredible. They’re driven to fly north along the blackest of turnpikes at dizzy heights–whether they like it or not.

Particularly in May, yellow warblers and scarlet tanagers flicker above us unseen toward the Northern Boreal Forest in Canada during migration. Also “black-throated green warblers, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, orange-crowned warblers, American redstarts…an estimated three billion birds…” says Dr. Jeff Wells of the Boreal Songbird Initiative. Hitting the night highway from winter getaways in South America, Central America, and Mexico, “Millions of them pass over the nighttime landscape of Maine,” bumping into each other, plunging on. Why do they do it? Why do we go to L.L. Bean? The magnetite in the back of our heads tells us this is the cool place to be.

How do we know the birds are flying over us? “Some preliminary observational papers published by the late 1800s” took note of the phenomenon, Wells says. While few could see the birds, we could hear them: “Some ornithologists and birders were aware that some thrushes could be identified by their calls as they flew overhead at night in the early and mid 1900s, and a few ornithologists began using acoustic techniques, radar, and ceilometers to study nocturnal migration beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. There has been a surge in research to identify the nocturnal flight calls of birds in the last 10 to 20 years.” Also northbound over Portland in nightly swarms: purple finches and ruby-crowned kinglets. True tourists, many touch down en route and vacation with us here in Maine. Maybe a Baltimore oriole (winters in Mexico) swoops down and lands in a tree at Laudholm Farm. Yeah, this place feels right. We’ll stay here for a while. No wonder songbirds named red-eyed vireos cool their heels here after so much night driving.

See, we return–following instinct, directed by desire. We’re ships in the night seeking our ports. Don’t try to make sense of it as we fight for parking spaces on Exchange Street at night. We’re here because we need to be here. We can’t help ourselves.

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