Birds are taking over the skies right now. Here's what you can see in New England during fall migration

Download Audio

How'd you sleep last night? As you slumbered, birds swept the skies above you.

Roughly 1,000 birds crossed over Suffolk County Tuesday night as part of the birds' annual fall migration, according to BirdCast, a migration tracker with Cornell University's ornithology lab.

Neil Hayward, a famed lifelong birder and author of "Lost Among the Birds: Accidentally Finding Myself in One Very Big Year," joins us to talk about what we can see and hear during this migration. Hayward also serves on the board of the Brookline Bird Club and the American Birding Association.

Interview Highlights

On the migration of the Blackpoll Warbler:

"So this is a bird that breeds in the boreal forests of Canada all the way through to Alaska. And it was a bit of a mystery where this bird went in the fall. All the Canadian birds and the Alaskan birds would converge in the northeast and eat as much food as they possibly could, putting on a lot of fat for that migration. And then they disappeared. People thought maybe they went out to sea. And, in fact, there were a few reports of lost birds found on boats during storms. But it wasn't until about 2015 when these birds were fitted with tiny geo-locators that mapped where they went. We discovered that they headed out across the North Atlantic and flew for three days nonstop until they hit the north coast of South America."

A male Blackpoll Warbler. (Image via the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
A male Blackpoll Warbler. (Image via the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

"[That's about] 2,500 miles [they are traveling], about 35 miles an hour, nonstop. They can't eat or drink. They convert the fat that they've been putting on — they've doubled their body weight. They weigh about the weight of two nickels ... And then they burn off all of that fat. Some of that fat is converted to water so they can drink. They don't sleep for those three days. They shut down half of their brain, alternately, and they rest each half of their brain. That's their form of sleeping until they hit South America."

On why some birds migrate at night: 

"Well, most birds are migrating now through the country. And in fact, if they went to their wintering grounds in Brazil, it would take over three weeks. Most birds are migrating at night when it's cooler. There are fewer predators, there's less turbulence. And they also use the stars as navigation. And every night birds are migrating. [Blackpoll Warblers] have decided that three weeks is too long for them. They'd rather do it at one big, massive journey. So they've learned to fly across the Atlantic."

On the migration of the Arctic Tern: 

A breeding adult Arctic Tern. (Image via the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
A breeding adult Arctic Tern. (Image via the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

"So this is a bird that breeds up in the Arctic. It's an Arctic Tern. They breed as far down as Maine. And 30 years ago they used to breed in Massachusetts. They spend the winter in Antarctica ... They depart [from] Maine and the Arctic. They head out across the Atlantic to the west coast of Africa. Then they come back to hit the east coast of South America, and then they spend five months in the pack ice of South America before coming back. They have an annual round trip of about 55,000 miles. And these are long live birds. They live 20 or 30 years, which means in a lifetime, one of these birds can fly 1.5 million miles. They have a wingspan of about 30 inches, they're bright white and they have a blood red dagger bill and bright red feet."

On the migration of the Canada Goose:

"Yeah, I think this is a bird that's familiar to all of your listeners. The Canada Goose, these are migrating now from Canada, heading south for the winter. And there are two populations of Canada geese. There are what we would call the sort of the real Canada geese which live in Canada and then migrate down here. And then the ones that have got too lazy to do that and they're here all year. So we have these birds that are domesticated."

An adult Canada Goose. (Image via the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
An adult Canada Goose. (Image via the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

"And they're a bit of a pain ... They they leave a lot of mess. They cause erosion of wetland areas. But the migrating ones we can see now in these huge flocks in the sky, these V-shaped skeins of geese, which is a great collective noun for geese, we tend to call them gaggles on the ground."

This segment aired on October 26, 2022.

Headshot of Amanda Beland

Amanda Beland Senior Producer
Amanda Beland is a producer and director for Radio Boston. She also reports for the WBUR newsroom.


Headshot of Tiziana Dearing

Tiziana Dearing Host, Radio Boston
Tiziana Dearing is the host of Radio Boston.



More from Radio Boston

Listen Live