The weekly report from the world’s birdwatching capital… by Seymore Thanu
I received an email from a woman asking me about dead flickers she was finding on the beach. I’m not a dead flicker expert, but few people are.
What’s a flicker?
Oh. Right. Sorry. A flicker is a magnum-sized woodpecker. Properly called Northern Flicker by birders; Colaptes auratus by ornithologists, “FLICKER!” by people standing on the Hawk Watch Platform at Cape May Point State Park when one of the large, golden-winged birds goes rocketing by. Flickers are common breeding birds of park habitat and open, broken woodlands.
Then what were the birds doing on a beach? Nothing. They were dead. Death affects flickers in much the same way it does other creatures. Even a non-flicker expert like yourself should know that.
Anyway she was disturbed by the number of dead flickers she’d found washed up on the beach. She wanted to know why so many had chosen to die there.
Like most problems, this one was based on a misrepresentation. In fact, the birds didn’t choose to die there. They chose to die at sea. They flew out over the ocean, probably jumping off from New England or Long Island. Ran out of gas. Drowned. The currents and waves ferried them onto the beach where they joined the natural and unnatural flotsam on the beach.
Okay. They probably didn’t chose to die. They were brought by circumstances to meet an untimely death.
Okay. They don’t really run on petroleum distillates. Their “fuel” is the fat the birds store. I was taking literary license. But the scientific truth is that the foundation of the energy in fat, and gasoline, is the same carbon-to-carbon atom bond whose energetic source is the sun.
The birds were migrating. They went offshore on a good tail wind, got tired, realized that it was a long way to land, then turned into the wind. From there they lost speed, lost headway. Ran out of fuel. Ditched. Drowned.
Happens to millions and millions of birds every year. The reason this person was finding lots of flickers was threefold.
First, they are common.
Second, they are migrating now.
Third, being large birds, they don’t get puréed by the waves before they get washed up on shore. They are largely intact and easily identifiable by live flicker experts.
Most of the smaller songbirds (and most flickers for that matter), just go into old briny and become part of the detritus in the ocean which, in a few million years, might be converted by heat and pressure into oil deposits.
But by that time we’ll all be using ethanol.
You’re stuck on that millions and millions disclosure aren’t you? Every year countless millions of birds fly offshore and drown. About 90% of all birds born in any year fail to live long enough to breed. Fall migration is the first big cut in the ranks.
You don’t have to be a dead flicker expert to appreciate this: the fact that being a bird is one great, big, colossal challenge. It’s one of the reasons so many people are bird watchers. Every bird they see comes pretty close to a miracle.
One that replicates itself every morning the bird wakes to see the dawn.
Why not stop what you are doing now, and go outside and appreciate a miracle or two?
But before you venture out on your own, you might want to consider stopping by the Cape May Bird Observatory (the CMBO) – THE place for anything to do with nature. Located at 701 East Lake Drive overlooking lovely Lake Lily in Cape May Point, the center is open 9:30-4:30pm every day. Ask any of our staff – they are always glad to help with anything you need – even things you didn’t know you needed yet. Check out the schedule of daily walks, pick up a free birding map, and while you are there, don’t forget the newest books (including Pete Dunne’s Bayshore Summer, and Birds of Cape May, a beautiful array of photos just released by Kevin Karlson), bird feeders, and some great new and fun merchandise – including our exclusive CMBO logo jewelry, clothing, totes, and more. Take a look at the sightings log or our website to check what’s being seen, pick up a bargain from the vintage books section, look at some of the wonderful Charley Harper merchandise, or just browse. If you aren’t fortunate enough to be in the area, visit us online at www.BirdCapeMay.org – where birding Cape May is only a click away – but you won’t get the same experience looking at the pictures on the website as you do standing in the midst of it all!
Seymore Thanu is none other than New Jersey’s own Pete Dunne, Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and Chief Communications Officer for New Jersey Audubon. Author of several books on and about nature (available at the CMBO) he weaves information, insight and even fantasy into a net that captures minds and hearts. He has written for virtually every birding publication and for The New York Times.