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Bird Wise: Catch a wave and you're sitting on top of the world

An American Redstart warbler during spring migration.1 / 2
Marshall Howe2 / 2

Those of you from my generation (betrayed by my picture) surely recall the Beach Boys' classic surfing song that is the title of this column.

Many years ago, I gave up surfing for birding, a sport in which I'm actually capable of catching the wave.

In a previous column, I alluded to the imminent arrival of large numbers of migratory birds returning from a winter in Latin America or the Caribbean. Birders eagerly hope for a large fallout of these birds after a night of migration and have labelled these events "waves." The term comes from the lively and often directional flow of bird flocks through the trees, after they touch down.

In our area, when a wave happens, you might see a smorgasbord of 15 or more species of warblers along with a myriad of other migrants like vireos, flycatchers and orioles over a very short period of time.

Waves occur when the weather conditions are just right. The best times seem to be when the birds take off in the evening with a tailwind but encounter a cold front toward dawn. The front stalls them, resulting in an aerial traffic jam before they descend. Birding at this time of year can be feast (a wave) or famine (the weather is too good, so the migrants are much more dispersed).

If you get out most mornings in May, you are very apt to encounter at least one impressive wave. I've been talking spring, but the same phenomenon in reverse can happen during fall migration. But the spring migration is more compressed in time, so the chances of a wave are greater. The most famous recurring fallout of migrants in North American is at Dauphin Island, Ala. in April. When weather conditions cooperate there, thousands of birds may land exhausted on the beach after a sustained overnight flight across the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan peninsula.

For beginning birders, waves may be overwhelming. But don't get discouraged. You will at least be impressed with this colorful, dynamic spectacle, and at best, you should be able to learn to identify a few species you didn't know before.

Fortunately, many of the birds from the morning wave will hang around for at least the day and afford many opportunities for studying them at a more leisurely pace.

As your birding expertise becomes more honed over the years, you will be able to catch the wave with ever-renewing confidence in identifying that fleeting magnolia or bay-breasted warbler. Enjoy the migration!