[Tweeters] Migrating Birds Tonight -- What Might They Be?

Joshua Glant josh.n.glant at gmail.com
Wed Sep 2 22:21:51 PDT 2015

Good evening Mr. Brown,

Yes, I have been hearing the same calls over my Mercer Island yard since mid-August! The most common call by far, at least in my experience, has been the spring-peeper-like call of the Swainson's Thrush. Also heard have been lower buzzy chips that come from either warblers or sparrows, high chips that are definitely from warblers, and perhaps a Chipping Sparrow call or two (I've heard that they're distinctive, and I'm pretty sure I heard one on my first night of listening.)

But songbirds aren't the only voices in the sky: two nights in a row, I have been surprised to hear solitary shorebirds over my house! In fact, I even called the second one a Solitary Sandpiper, but then realized that the call I heard was perfectly intermediate between Solitary and Spotted, the more expected species to hear at night in Seattle. So I'm calling it a probable Spotted. At least I'm certain that the first one was a Spotted!

By the way, did you know that you can view birds migrating on radar? It's true! Base reflectivity radar is made to scan the atmosphere for particles of moisture or, in some cases when necessary, dust, but it is more than capable of detecting the feathered river in the nocturnal sky. On the radar, weather usually appears as bands of green, yellow and red, but the birds always appear as great blobs, most often blue, that are centered over radar stations (you can rest assured that there are also birds in the spaces between stations!).

Here is a site for observing the Northwest's nocturnal migrants:


And for the entire U.S. (you'll notice in this one that the East lights up magnitudes more than the West; one of the perks of living east of the Rockies, I guess):


And here is an archive of nationwide radar for most nights (except for those during server crashes), spanning all the way back to 2008:


Finally, I must draw your attention to one of my favorite paintings of all time: Mystery of the Missing Migrants, by Charley Harper. Though I usually don't go for modernistic, angular artwork of this type, the late and great wildlife artist Charley Harper used the style so well in his depictions of Marie's creatures and scenery of all kinds, especially birds. In this painting, a very diverse and colorful variety of birds migrate over the treetops, through a starry sky and under the light of a crescent moon. Though some species aren't quite accurate (since when do Broad-winged Hawks and Swallow-tailed Kites migrate at night, when there are no kettles), it's a fun, whimsical depiction of a phenomenon that goes on every night above our heads in spring and fall, faintly heard but richly experienced. Can you identify all the species?


Good birding, Joshua Glant

Mercer Island, WA

Josh.n.glant at gmail.com

P.S. Someone told me recently that nocturnal listening is wonderful on overcast nights, when the birds are forced to fly at lower elevations in the sky, even closer to listening ears. Of course, one problem with that is that most overcast nights in Seattle also come with wind, which very easily obstructs the faint calls from the heavens! I can't wait to find a windless, overcast night to try it, but for now, clear nights have done me well. And if you're lucky, you might spot a shooting star among the pearl-studded constellations, as I have! Watching for Perseid meteors was, indeed, what accidentally introduced me to the world I had so long wanted to enter, that of nocturnal migrants and their calls. A fun world to explore, for sure!

> On Sep 2, 2015, at 9:49 PM, FRANK BROWN <franklauriebrown at msn.com> wrote:


> The sky is filled tonight over Bitter Lake and Broadview with calling migrating birds. I've never heard anything like this before in Seattle. Has anyone else heard them, and does anyone have a guess at what they might be?


> Frank Brown

> North Seattle

> North Park-Bitter Lake neighborhood

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> Tweeters at u.washington.edu

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