Saturday, August 31, 2013

8/30 + 8/31 IL Migration Report

Hey everyone!

So after a little added fun from storm-induced power-outages and late-night driving, I'm back in the world of the internet. I also happen to be on the opposite side of Lake Michigan. Funny how that works.
Surface Analysis at the time of this post. Note the cold front
going through Southern IL.

Anyway, what happened last night? The answer lies in a cold front moving from the north, and carrying a low-pressure system with it. This front acted effectively as a wedge for the warm, super-humid air sitting over us at the time, forcing it up into the cool upper layers of the troposphere, where condensation occurred. It was this process that caused the thunderstorms enjoyed by Northern IL yesterday, and still enjoyed by those further south as the front progresses.

This front and its storms will shut down migration in most areas briefly, but luckily for us, they are followed by northerly winds. This will carry migrants without question, and already have spurred light to moderate migration with it. This includes flycatchers, thrushes, warblers, any early sparrows, and more. To watch migration radar animated, see here: -- the lines in a column moving west represent the sunset...just watch the burst of blue spheres that represent the bird migration. Make your own predictions of what will be migrating with the master chart here:
Migration at the time of this post. Click to enlarge. Note the
storm front going through Southern IL, which corresponds
to the cold front in the image above.

These winds are forecast to become southerly and then westerly by midday tomorrow, and then by Sunday night, we will have northerly winds. But at that time, they will be much more powerful than tonight's. Definitely watch the radar tomorrow night.

Cool! Have a good night everybody.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

8/29 IL Migration Report

Skimpier migration in the Northern half of the state than the south,
which is now experiencing light to moderate movements.

So tonight, we are seeing the result of two things in our state, and to give you a hint, they have to do with the omni-important winds. Birds in the approximate northern half of the state are stalled by a headwind right now, and as reflected by the radar, this half of the prairie state is mostly non-avian noise. The Southern half, however, lacks any considerable wind velocity at all. So, we see birds moving in the lack of any headwind. Ultimately, this translates into the possibility of arrivals and influxes in the Southern half of the state, whereas the northern half of the state should mostly see the same birds tomorrow.

Influxes in the southern half of the state will include but not be limited to Least Flycatcher, Swainson's Thrush, Veery, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, and Tennessee Warbler, American Redstart, and shorebirds. These are the same birds that could be found in any Illinoisan's favorite migrant trap, so get looking if you can! To see the master list and make you own predictions, see here: -- I can't rave enough about this resource.

Strange winds due Saturday
Looking ahead, the weak southeasterly winds predicted yesterday are now becoming dominant in Illinois, and should remain so into tomorrow, when stronger southwesterly winds are forecast to take over at various times throughout the state.Luckily, it appears these conditions won't last long, as a fascinating counterclockwise-spinning mass of air will move through mid-dayish tomorrow, leaving most of the state with strong northerly winds, which should last for most of Saturday. Note that some places in Southern IL may be experiencing primarily westerly winds at this time.
Oh look at that! In 36 hours, we're due for a cold front from
the north, perfectissimo for shorebird movement.

Cool! Good luck all.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

8/28 IL Migration Report - Mini

Hello again!

So before we really get into the swing of things as far as this report goes, I'll spit out one little report to get tonight taken care of. The east is blue right now, blue with the reflectivity of birds.

Right now, we in the northern half of the state are experiencing northerly winds thanks to a friendly neighborhood High Pressure-system. This system is now drifting west over northern Wisconsin, and as it continues west, a low pressure system to our west is bringing in southwesterly winds, and it's helped by a high-pressure system to our south. Looking at the image below, trace your finger in a circle around the big H's or L's to see where the winds are going: L-systems rotate counterclockwise and H-systems rotate clockwise. This will help you predict which winds will be brought by which systems..

Anyway, what this means right now is that birds are being sent right on their way southward, and encountering fairly weak winds to the south of us, so they're just going. Tomorrow may see some more influxes of flycatchers, thrushes, warblers, and shorebirds.

Winds in these weather systems are forecast to become very weakly easterly for the next few days, when light to moderate movements may occur. It looks like southerly winds will become dominant by Friday, when migration will probably be shut down for the most part. Here's a link to check out the wind forecast.

That's all for tonight's migration. best of luck!

So What's This So-Called "Fall" Migration?

The best part about Fall Migration is that it's totally not a Fall migration. The beginning of it comes bit by bit in mid-June, when failed breeding shorebirds and some songbirds show slight influxes. Amazingly, this happens as Spring Migration is just wrapping up.

Note the Fall peaks of these shorebird migrations. Data
from eBird
"Fall" Migration continues at a slow pace until mid-July, when things start picking up. With summer drying up lakes, ponds, and rivers into mudflats, we see shorebirds moving en masse southward. This has been the bulk of Illinois' "Fall" Migration so far. Birds like Semipalmated and Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Solitary Sandpiper, and more have been coming south from their tundra or taiga breeding grounds since the end of their tiny window of breeding opportunity. And they, along with some vagrant relatives from Eurasia, have been the ones stealing the show in all their gray-brown splendor. These charadriiforms are peaking in their migration RIGHT NOW, and places like Chautauqua, the Lake Michigan shoreline, and various spots with the right conditions have certainly seen it, and the invertebrates that live there certainly have too.

But with the coming and going of peak shorebird migration, we first watch the post-breeding dispersal of songbirds and then, eventually, their southbound migration. As August hit its mid-point and began to wane, songbirds really started moving with a purpose, albeit not quite at peak levels...yet. Right now, we are at an epic transition period--in September, we will watch growing numbers of warblers, flycatchers, thrushes, vireos, and sparrows, many have whom have never migrated before, as they use our humble abodes as stopovers. As clocks in their heads tick away, as magnetite particles in their bills vibrate to the earth's magnetic field, as hormones rush in their veins telling them to push on, we will again be witness to one of nature's greatest phenomena.

Gradually, flycatchers, warblers, and various other passerine groups are making a showing in the prairie state, and some places have gotten fairly good species counts. If you're out birding now, you may be seeing Swainson's Thrushes, Veeries, Tennessee, Nashville, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, and Wilson’s Warblers, American Redstarts, and any early migrants from the Emberizidae, Cardinalidae, or Icteridae. Only expect these numbers to increase. And not just numbers of individual birds. Numbers of species too. This number will at least double before the end of September. And we never know what may show up in your neck of the woods...

Speaking now from personal experience, it seems that Spring Migration is much easier to tack a beginning and end onto than Fall Migration. My explanation for this is that in spring, birds are motivated northward by the will to breed, whereas in the fall, birds are motivated by survival. With fairly good consistency (see courtship rituals of almost any large mammal), survival, though important, doesn't motivate the sense of urgency that reproduction does. And we see just that in Spring Migration; birds seem to have a much greater sense of urgency to establish territories and mate, which all species will attempt to do. In Fall Migration, sometimes being early does give an advantage to those flying south to the nonbreeding grounds, but generally a set social hierarchy defines this regardless. Some species aren't even territorial on the breeding grounds. Some shorebirds never even make it to the final nonbreeding ground, and instead just stay over at some productive stopover site. And what about seabirds, who essentially just wander for food until the urgency of finding a territory and a mate returns in the Spring?

Understanding this we get to one of the best parts of "Fall" Migration from a birding perspective: vagrancy. Without this sense of urgency, as well as a huge crop of inexperienced new migrants, we get more individuals wandering brain-exploding-ly far off their typical migratory path, which makes vagrancy more frequent in the Fall. Some other migrants have elliptical migratory paths, where they take one path to the breeding grounds, and another--one closer to us--on the way back south. Overall, this beautiful chaos will take us all the way into winter, when we will arbitrarily decide that migration is over.

The line at the end of Fall migration--found somewhere in Mid-December--is as blurry as the beginning. Winter birding is characterized by many nomadic species, forced to be highly mobile by thin distribution of food in colder months. But this also is a cause of easy confusion, as migration southward turns into just plain wandering. Overall, this enigma that we call "Fall" Migration teaches us one thing (of many): though terms like Spring and Fall Migration are useful, they never really end, so to speak. Migration happens at the level of an individual bird, and that bird can be completely on its own schedule. With billions of their own schedules, of course migration is a little hard to define and categorize. But that's okay. I like it that way, in fact. It makes it exciting, and worth following. Complete order and uniformity is boring, and I'm glad nature knows that.

We'll still try to define and categorize it though. We humans just can't stop. Especially myself. Fall Migration is really an inaccurate term; maybe we should follow the Humphrey-Parkes System for naming molts, and name the migration after where the birds are going. Perhaps we'll call it the Pre-Nonbreeding Season Migration, or Pre-Wintering Migration. They're coming out pretty wordy for now...maybe you all could help me out with that.

Anyway, that's all for now, folks. Godspeed.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Inspiration from Spring Migration 2013

We humans love organization. We love identifying patterns and rules, themes and motifs, and understanding the cycles that envelope us at all times. More than many things, we like order and consistency--just look at taxonomy. Humanity has spent centuries (and continues to today) refining and correcting rules and categories to be applied to nature. But very often--enough to keep scientists at the grindstone--we find nature doing something that has scrambled brains for centuries. She breaks the rules.

This past spring, we saw nature break down our organization of migration. We have determined an established order in which species are supposed to come through, a way birds are supposed to move with the weather, but thanks to a rather late-staying winter, all this was thrown to the wind. Wilson’s Warblers influxed with Waterthrushes, Mourning Warblers with Redstarts, Parulas with Blackpoll Warblers. And minds were indeed scrambled. Spring Bird Counts, normally catching a massive brunt of the migratory load, were relatively quiet in much of our state. April Big Days came up mysteriously short of what they had been in years past. Species variety in general fluctuated widely.  Our systems of categorization broke down completely.

But it gets even better when compared to last year. Even on an annual scale, this past spring of 2013 broke any sort of streak or pattern that we could have dreamed of. With early heat in 2012 (exceptional on its own), birds migrated North far ahead of schedule, whereas this year, any birds that could have headed north a little early were barricaded by a line of cold, insect-suppressing air that covered northern and central Illinois. While species variety was great in some warmer parts of Illinois, even into May, many places in the prairie state had little more than Yellow-rumped Warblers and Kinglets. That, my friends, is weird.

And all it took was some strange weather patterns. Kenn Kaufman once said, "Nature defies our every attempt to define and categorize it," and he was right. But this shouldn't be looked at with irritation; nature gives us the power and opportunity to discover news mechanisms, perspectives, and understandings ad infinitum. She compels us to keep learning by constantly defying our expectations. And let's not forget the birds specifically--this is the best part of the story. The birds adapted. They went with it. Birds genetically programmed to migrate at specific times to specific places changed to survive the challenges they faced this spring. Millions of years of adaptation, and here we see the beautiful intersection and balancing of nature's systems. The complexity of it all is mind-boggling. We are but tiny observers of one of the grandest cycles to ever exist.

So this spring didn't just teach me which birds moved when, or how to read radar and weather patterns, it also taught me a little bit about why I'm a birdwatcher. Moving forward, I appreciate a little bit more the kind of people that make up a birdwatcher. It's about the perpetual discovery that birds, and ultimately nature, empower us to make, and that, my friends, is priceless.

2013 Spring Migration Synopsis...At Last

This spring was one heck-uva-ride, wasn’t it? Winter this year achieved a painfully long stay. April still saw temperatures in the 30's and 40's, leaving us outdoors-people to contend with winter's continued snow, slush, and sleet.

The birds on the other hand, again exemplifying their adaptiveness in the face of adversity, responded--these responses are what made Spring 2013 so fascinating. Diving ducks, for example, remained in the prairie state (and others around it) far longer than is typical, with scaup, mergansers, and even scoters present along the lakefront into May.

Bit by bit, the boundary of the cold inched its way up the state, frequently disturbed by cold fronts and more recurrences of winter. By the time Mid-April came around, migrants were in state, mostly concentrated in the southern regions, giving lucky birders there a sneak-peek of what was to come. Spring-loaded with migratory fervor, the birds were strangely...lethargic. They didn’t move. As we followed migration together this spring, we watched repeatedly as perfect migrant-carrying weather-events passed through our region, and failed utterly to catch the classic spring burst of migration that we birders know and love. The cold air that still sat on top of some of central and northern Illinois effectively formed a barrier for migration, a barrier of cold and "insect-lessness". North of this barrier, no trees were budding, no flowers were blooming, and certainly no bees were buzzing.

The migrants stayed put, and waited for the barrier to give, for the cold to lift, and day after day we felt the suspense building as we waited as anxiously as the birds did. Some of the hardier birds were undeterred: many blackbirds and swallows moved north through the barrier of cold. But wave after wave of cold brought about the fascinating phenomenon of reverse migration, something we should know well after Spring 2013.

And then it happened. After relatively paltry Spring Bird Counts, the warmth came. Life bloomed all the way through the state, and with its lateness, it brought a mind-blowing variety of warblers: Wilson’s Warblers with Waterthrushes, Mourning Warblers with Redstarts, Parulas with Blackpoll Warblers. Every potential migrant-carrying wind brought them in great numbers. After early May, we saw the radar on fire night after night. After being stalled weeks off schedule for some, we witnessed the determination that I think defines spring migration. Migrants were determined to get up north as quickly as possible after losing so much time, and they did it with grandeur. With this definitive urgency, migrants were here and gone in the blink of an eye. But the fact that they all came through at once facilitated some amazing happenings this spring, the best of which was likely the breaking of the Illinois Big Day Record.

The extremity of this spring was more obvious in some places than others, but overall, it really taught us that climate, weather, and migration are intimately linked. And the more we come to understand these grand natural processes, and how they interact, the better prepared we will be for next spring, and even this Fall. So bring it on migration. We’re ready for the next round. And hey, maybe we’ll get a late-staying summer this time around…