2018-05-17 / Nature

Birds Come North in ‘Frenzied Affair’

By Charles Avenengo


Parula warbler. (Photos by Bob Weaver) Parula warbler. (Photos by Bob Weaver) Similar to the Volvo Ocean racers who blasted north this past week to arrive in Newport, another wave is heading toward us. A surge of migration has reached our shores in staggering numbers.

A surge of birds, that is.

The annual spring bird migration is upon us. Like the approaching sailors, the winds have pushed millions of birds northward. They have wintered in the American tropics and will now spread out over the North American continent.

Unlike the most leisurely autumn migration, where animals concentrate on building up their fat reserves, the spring bird migration is a frenzied affair. The migrants are in a rush to get north, set up shop and produce the next generation. To get here, they will travel along time-honored flyways before settling into their summer digs. Because of this, these are the most exciting two weeks of the year for birdwatchers.


Yellow warbler. Yellow warbler. With eyes glued skyward, birdwatchers know where to intercept and witness this spectacle. The hope is to witness a “fallout” when birds drop in like snowflakes.

The most dramatic fallout is along the central coast of Texas. To get there, migrants gather in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Once the proper conditions occur, they fly as a mass in a rhum line across the Gulf of Mexico.

This year, Doppler radar picked up this mass overnight on April 8-9. The following morning, observers along the central coast of Texas experienced a major fallout of migrants safely reaching our shores. Having just spent the previous 24 hours flapping their wings nonstop and losing up to a third of their body weight, the migrants were exhausted and upon arriving to American shores, they were easy pickings for birdwatchers to observe.

Reports from various coastal locations on barrier islands near Galveston recorded nearly 100 incoming species in staggering numbers. Normally difficult-to-see birds were tallied: 25 Kentucky warblers, 45 hooded warblers, 25 worm-eating warblers, 100 indigo buntings. Throughout the following week, a similar scenario was replicated across the Texas barrier islands and other entry ports across the southern United States.


Redstart. Redstart. Once they got their bearings, slowly the immigrant hordes started working their way through the states. Bad weather and contrary winds stalled their progress, but once provided with proper tailwinds they continued northwards.

In Newport, all was relatively quiet until a fallout occurred on May 2. Birdwatchers Mark Anderson and veteran Newport This Week wildlife photographer Bob Weaver were in Miantonomi Park when they experienced the first local fallout of the season. Amongst other species, they spied a yellow-throated warbler.


Yellow rump warbler. Yellow rump warbler. Miantonomi Park is considered one of the leading hotspots in Rhode Island for spring migration. Their observation drew many birdwatchers and since then, on a daily basis, more and more migrants have dropped in and been recorded by the binocular set.

By now, there have been some smaller fallouts and most of the migrants have cleared customs and are onboard. Only a few late arriving species are still expected.

With their arrival, nature lovers are happy to see these summer visitors. Birds like bobolinks, orioles, grosbeaks, vireos and tanagers grace our forests and fields. But the undisputed stars are the warblers. Because of their striking and colorful patterns, they are fondly referred to as the “jewels of the forest.”

North America has 49 species of breeding warblers. One more type, Bachman’s warbler, has become extinct. As they spread throughout the continent, warblers occupy various niches. Their numbers begin to thin out by the time they arrive here. During the two weeks of migration frenzy, while about 30 types of warblers will be recorded on Aquidneck Island, only about six types will actually stay for the summer and nest here.

Some are here by accident. They are considered “overshoots” from the south. The yellow-throated warbler is considered rare in Rhode Island. Its normal breeding ground ranges no further north than central New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Many more warblers are passing through en route to points north. Newport is only a waypoint. These visitors still have hundreds, if not thousands, of miles remaining in their sojourn. Their ultimate target is the boreal forest. One species, blackpoll warblers, having wintered deep in the forests of South America, will rest before continuing their journey to nest as far north as the border of the tree line and the tundra.

In undertaking this final leg of this journey through the Americas, they should be fine passing through Canadian customs.

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

Aquidneck Island Warblers

Nesters: Northern parula, yellow warbler, pine warbler (rarely in Portsmouth), black-and-white warbler, American redstart, common yellowthroat.

Pass through Aquidneck Island but still nest in state: Bluewinged warbler, Nashville warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, black-throated blue warbler, black-throated green warbler, yellow-rumped warbler (winter here as well), blackburnian warbler, prairie warbler, prothonotory warbler (very rare breeder), worm-eating warbler, ovenbird, Northern waterthrush, Louisiana waterthrush, hooded warbler, Canada warbler, Wilson’s warbler.

Pass through Aquidneck Island bound for northern climes: Tennessee warbler, orange crowned warbler, magnolia warbler, Cape May warbler, palm warbler, bay-breasted warbler, blackpoll warbler, Connecticut warbler, mourning warbler.

Southern overshoots: Yellow throated warbler, cerulean warbler (rare nester in state), prothonotory warbler (also rare nester in state), Kentucky warbler, yellow-breasted chat.

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