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Warbler River

Source: Personal experience

Read this and other stories in the book, Noticing Nature, by Chuck Bonner. Also available in e-book format for Amazon Kindle.

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I once found myself in the middle of a river of songbirds!

I was hunting deer in Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area in Georgia. I had arrived before dawn on this chilly morning in late fall, and slowly watched the day light up the forest. Bright sunlight streamed in among the leafless oaks from the clearing just east of me, which was the old footprint of a tornado.

This was before I had figured out that the best place to look for deer in the morning was along the nearly-overgrown dirt road at the top of the hill behind me. I was just sitting in the middle of a hillside beside a large oak, looking downhill, waiting for a deer or two to come looking for acorns.

As the daylight broadened and I was considering quitting for the day, there was a sudden commotion and rustling in the undergrowth below me. It didn't seem like an animal, but like a gust of wind. But it wasn't quite like the wind, either.

The commotion slowly crept through the woods and up the hillside toward me. As it drew near, I saw that it was a large flock of small birds, flitting from one branch to the next, all moving southward.

I didn't know much about songbirds at the time, so I couldn't tell exactly what kind they were. It was obvious that there were at least half a dozen different species, even allowing for differences between males and females. Most appeared to be warblers of various sorts, but some may have been from other families.

Soon, they were all around me. There were thousands of them! They formed a veritable river of birds, ten feet deep and as wide as I could see through the sparse undergrowth. I don't know how long the entire flock was, but it took nearly twenty minutes to pass me.

Clearly, this was a migration, but it was unlike the classic image of bird migration. Just think of a migration of birds, and your mind conjures up images of vast aggregations of small flocks of geese winging across the sky in epic non-stop journeys of hundreds of miles. This migration only rose ten feet off the ground, and simply moved right through the trees and bushes. It was hard to follow the movements of a single bird in all the commotion, but it seemed that each one would fly a hundred feet or so, perch on a twig for a few seconds, and then fly on to the next perch.

It was as if the everyday flitting through the hedges had taken on a real purpose, and every warbler in the state had gotten together to flit their way to Florida.

They didn't make a sound with their voices, but the combined rustling of their thousands of wings rose to a low roar as the river flowed past me.

I had never seen anything like this before. And now that I know birds a little better, I'd like to see it again so that I could identify at least some of the species involved. But I have never seen anything like it since.


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