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Book Excerpt
On the Wings of Warblers
An author’s debut work is a panoramic view of the incredible journey taken by migrating birds—and of the people who have admired them through the centuries. 

 

Songbird Journeys: Four Seasons In the Lives of Migratory Birds
By Miyoko Chu
Walker & Co., 320 pages, $23

In this, her debut book, author Miyoko Chu takes readers for a perilous journey on the backs of some of the world’s tiniest birds. She visits the first explorers to observe buntings and flycatchers inexplicably gracing their ships at sea; watches thrushes and tanagers battle out storms and starvation; and she traces their history and that of the people who have always watched and admired them.

Chu, a science writer and ornithologist at Cornell University, offers eloquent prose, shifting seamlessly between historical fact and poetry, making Songbird Journeys at once an educating and pleasurable read. Painstakingly researched, the book is divided into four practical sections—one for each of the seasons, beginning with spring—and finished with exhaustive appendices: “Songbird Migration Hot Spots,” “Citizen Science Projects,” as well as a list of recommended resources supplementing the lengthy bibliography.

Such informative postscripts are seldom matched by a debut writer’s story telling. Yet Chu manages to capture the essence of what wildlife means to us—life, surely, and evolution, but also joy and inspiration. From beginning to end, she invites us to escape and engage; to appreciate the incredible, delicate life of each bird and the value of an avian world that we still don’t fully understand.—Alexa Schirtzinger

 

The following has been exerpted from Songbird Journeys: Four Seasons In the Lives of Migratory Songbirds, Copyright © 2006 by Miyoko Chu. Reprinted by permission of Walker & Co.

Chapter One

On a February morning, the sun rises on the Gulf of Mexico. In the oak woodlands along the Louisiana coast, the songs of resident Carolina wrens mingle with sounds from the nearby surf. Boat-tailed grackles walk along the edge between the woods and the sand, and laughing gulls wheel effortlessly above the water. Beyond, the Gulf of Mexico stretches six hundred miles to another shore, where the waves wash up on the white sands of the Yucatán Peninsula. Here, Yucatán wrens live in the scrubby dunes, tropical mockingbirds perch in mangrove forests, and greater flamingos wade in the lagoons.

Soon, these year-round residents will be joined by migrant songbirds journeying between endpoints as far south as Argentina and as far north as the boreal forests of Canada. The journeys begin at nightfall in early spring, as bobolinks leave the marshes and grasslands of Argentina and scarlet and summer tanagers lift off from the montane evergreen forests of the Andes. Veeries depart from second-growth woodlands of the Brazilian Cerrado, dickcissels flutter up over the llanos of Venezuela, and Baltimore orioles fly over the open woodlands of Colombia.

The migration gains momentum as millions of songbirds stream overhead—orioles, tanagers, thrushes, vireos, warblers, grosbeaks, buntings, bobolinks, and others—funneling northward through Central America and Mexico to the Yucatán Peninsula. There they come to the end of land and face two options: to follow the rim of land along the Gulf Coast that connects Mexico to the United States or to travel straight across the water with no land in sight. The songbirds head onward steadily, their paths obscured behind the curtain of night. By daylight, they arrive mysteriously on the northern Gulf Coast, in appearances that for centuries left naturalists wondering how they got there.

The earliest records of explorers to the New World hinted that songbirds must migrate over water, at least when close to land. During storms over the Gulf of Mexico, hundreds of birds sometimes materialized around ships. But it took a new technology—radar—and an astute teenager, Sidney Gauthreaux, to reveal the full sweep of millions of birds flying in from the Gulf.

As a youngster growing up in New Orleans, Gauthreaux had witnessed some of the most spectacular fallouts of migratory birds on record. When he was a teenager, he discovered that if he pointed his telescope straight up against a layer of high cirrus clouds, he could see what looked like pepper flakes—tiny silhouettes of migrants coming in off the Gulf by daylight—a technique that he later learned was independently discovered by Newman at about the same time. In 1957, when Gauthreaux was seventeen years old, Louisiana received some of the first weather radar stations in the United States, deployed as warning systems for hurricanes.

“I realized that here’s the magic eye that can see everything in the sky—and can even see through the clouds,” Gauthreaux said. In spring, when he knew that migrants were coming in from over the Gulf, the birds were so numerous that they sometimes whited out the display on the radar screen. “It was obvious to me that it was picking up trans-Gulf migration.”

However awesome the recent glimpses of trans-Gulf migration have been, we know these mass migrations fleetingly, and only when the birds have descended because of freakish weather conditions. And despite the startling radar images that prove the Gulf is no obstacle to millions of birds, the images are, after all, just dots, indistinguishable from one another.

“We get birds coming in off the Gulf at 12,000 feet and 15,000 feet above the ground,” said Gauthreaux. “We still don’t know the answers to questions even as fundamental as the species of birds involved. I would absolutely love, somehow, some way, to get up there and identify the birds. That’s something I want to stress to students of bird migration. Don’t get the impression that we’ve found all the answers. We’re just now beginning to scratch the surface.”

Find out more about Songbird Journeys here. To purchase the book, click here.

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