Enjoying Flight Days in Real Time

There are surely days when many of us question the value of being subscribed to our local or statewide birding listserv. Recurring threads about the use of four-letter banding codes instead of spelled out bird names, what to do about the Sharp-shinned Hawk that is using your  feeding station as an all-you-can buffet, and worst of all, feral cat debates contribute to excess wear and tear on our delete keys. However, there are a few days each spring and fall when our communities use this connectedness to share in the magnificence of major migratory flights. It seems that the joy of actually watching birds migrate has universal appeal.

While the bulk of migrating songbirds pass unseen under the cover of darkness, certain larger birds, such as Sandhill Cranes, Greater White-fronted Geese, Canada and Cackling Geese, Broad-winged Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawk, tend to move en masse during daylight hours.  The resulting flight days provide opportunities to witness  flock after flock passing over in a matter of a few hours. If your birding neighbors are seeing these birds, chances are you can walk outside and experience the same flight or even the same individual flock of birds.


Strings of migrant geese overhead, like these Cackling Geese photographed near Eugene, Oregon, mark the fall season for birders and non-birders alike. Their loud calls garner the attention of almost everyone who hears them.

Weather conditions play a role in many of these events. In fall, the southbound movements of some species are triggered when the first blast of cold arctic air spills across their northerly (Alaskan/Canadian) breeding grounds. By watching the national weather map it is possible to predict hawk flights with reasonable accuracy. Sandhill Cranes are somewhat dependent on thermals, so major passages are most likely to occur on sunny days. Timing, rather than weather is more important for Cackling Geese and White-fronted Geese, whose movements seem to hit the same few days on the calendar year after year.

Where I live in southern end of Oregon's Willamette Valley, I am right below a major flight path for Greater White-fronted Geese, which angle south-southeast across this part of the valley just before crossing over the Cascades and into the Klamath Basin. I am fortunate to have a job where I work outside, so if, when I check my e-mail before work, I see an early morning report of a migratory White-fronts in my area I am more inclined to keep an eye and an ear turned to the sky throughout the day. It is a near certainty that if I hear a single flock I will hear several passing high overhead. In Spring, the heaviest flight days almost always come during the last 8-10 days of April and the first week of May. In the Fall I can count on the peak southbound flights coming during the week of my birthday (26 September).


While most White-fronted Geese pass over Oregon's Willamette Valley without ever touching down, flocks occasionally stop to rest and feed. This small flock was photographed west of Junction City, Lane County, Oregon during Fall 2008.

Most flocks of White-fronts number between 100 and 300 birds. Their distinctive calls, which have laughing quality, are easily recognizable as they pass high overhead. Single observers have tallied as many as 7600 birds in a day in western Oregon. On days and nights with dense overcast, these normally high-flying birds drop down to lower altitudes. In such conditions, you may hear the calls of nearby geese and never see them. On many occasions I've heard flocks passing overhead while lying half-awake in bed late at night.

Compared to sites along the Central Flyway, the passage of Sandhill Cranes in western Oregon is comparatively meager, yet no less magical. The loud rolling calls of cranes overhead is enthralling. These vocalizations, which can be heard from great distance, inspire even veteran birders to start scanning the horizon to catch sight of a flock gliding by on set wings or circling on a thermal.


Migrant Sandhill Cranes fly with deliberate wing flaps interspersed with long glides on set wings. They depend of thermal uplift to help them reach suitable altitude when migrating. They can often be seen circling upward for many minutes before peeling off one by one and continuing on their journey.

When we see evidence of  a major flight, a quick post to our favorite listserv allows us to create shared experiences with other local birders. I've called friends or family members on many occasions and asked them to post a quick note about migrant flocks that I've seen while working. If I happen to hear/see cranes or geese migrating during the course of the day, I can be assured that many of my birding friends are enjoying the same spectacle and that I will be able to read their posts when I get home.


You’re the gtreaset! JMHO


I agree, Cheryl. Turkeys often are on the ground and nebary. I am rarely intimidated by big birds, only by territorial males! Been chased by ganders! and beaned on the head by redwing blackbirds! Both are memorable tales, but not ones I’d want to repeat! The Sand Hill Cranes were either airborne overhead, where my biggest risk was to be looking UP during a poop session, or they were about 50- 100 yards away. The sheer volume was astounding. I always knew they were in their home place and I was the guest. I like it that way. Thanks for your comments.

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