What is a migratory bird fallout?

I have seen a handful of migratory bird fallouts in my time, and they are true wonders of nature. Join me in nostalgia and tale-telling!

Flocks of Indigo Buntings littered the ground. At times, they were so numerous the ground appeared to glowing blue.

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A Tale of Yore, also Birding a Fallout

A Philadelphia Vireo searches for food amongst the fallout

Join me, as I tell you a story of a rare moment in time. A memory from south Texas, on South Padre Island, during the spring of 2012. My companions and I were coming out of the Rio Grande Valley after completing our 3rd day of the Great Texas Birding Class, a large birding competition.

As I rode in the backseat, I checked on local radars and wind maps to see what conditions we should be expecting on the Gulf Coast. As we drew near to the causeway that leads to South Padre, I noticed the 'bloom' on the radar. The bloom that can only mean one thing, hordes of birds filling the sky and confusing poorly trained weathermen and women. If you have never seen the radar bloom, then you should check out our birding radar blog post! I watched this bloom on my smartphone with bountiful hope. I told my fellow competitors that we were likely driving into some pretty good birding. Little did I know... this day in time would be everlasting in our memories.

Our anticipation built as we reached the bottom of the causeway. We had just snagged an Aplomado Falcon, and we were soon to be in migratory bird paradise. When we hit the midway of the bridge, the day changed. I looked out the window, and the gray sky was dotted with yellows, oranges, and pinks. Confusion led to realization. This, was a fallout. A fallout so large, THOUSANDS of orioles were reaching the island, meeting the wall of wind and rain, and falling out of the sky.

What is a migratory bird fallout?

A migratory bird fallout is a unique event caused by a combination of a large migratory event meeting detrimental weather conditions for migration. When the flocks of birds encounter these conditions, they rapidly descend from the sky while seeking shelter in trees, bushes, and on the ground. These fallouts can occur anywhere large numbers of migrant birds pass through a given area, however, bird fallouts are typically best for North Americans in the springtime on the Gulf Coast.

Where and when do migratory bird fallouts occur?

Bird fallouts can occur anywhere. However, major migratory corridors generally experience the best fallout conditions. Coastlines, major rivers, and mountain ranges all provide the corridors that create optimal fallout conditions. Spring is viewed as the best time to experience a fallout. During the spring, birds attempt to fast-track their migration back to breeding grounds. They move in large flocks with long overnight flights. In the fall, migratory birds often move in a more gradual fashion, with more loosely associated flocks. The Gulf Coast in spring makes for the perfect set of conditions. Thousands of migratory birds leave the Yucatan Peninsula every evening, cross the Gulf of Mexico in a single night-flight, and arrive on the coast by mid-morning. When these flocks encounter spring storm fronts, they tire quickly and seek shelter.

A Tale of a Birding Fallout Continued

A Canada Warbler was a grand prize for the day.

Before we finished crossing the causeway, we pulled off the side of the highway. We NEEDED to experience this moment. Thousands of Baltimore and Orchard Orioles were literally falling out of the sky. An endless flock of bright pink Franklin's Gulls dashed to a shallow pool for shelter from the wind. Warblers were sent spiraling by like tumbleweeds. As we absorbed this initial moment of amazement, we found our first rare bird of the day, a single Black-whiskered Vireo. This bird is a summer resident of Florida and is a resident of the eastern Caribbean. We were in shock.

We continued further into the island, seeking the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center. The parking lot was packed, the rain was hammering down, and our eyes were wide open. We grab our gear and proceeded into the conditions. We saw the throngs of binoculars and telephoto lenses as we neared the entrance. Clearly, we were not the only birders to discover what was happening.

From that moment going forward, all my memories are tied to the incredible numbers and types of birds we experienced. Even though we were attempting to be competitive in the Great Texas Birding Classic, we decided to throw out our tight schedule and enjoy every moment this day presented. Why? We were told by local birders that they had not seen a fallout like this in decades to almost half-a-century. We knew this was special. We knew we may never see it again.

Thousands of orioles were attempting to find food. Birding center volunteers put out hundreds of oranges to help feed them.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak male on South Padre Island

One of my favorite birds from the day, a Lesser Nighthawk!

The day was not all wondrous. The dark side of a fallout is the effect it has on migratory birds. Having spent 10+ hours crossing the Gulf of Mexico without stopping, many birds are tired, starving, and cold. When they experience adverse conditions, it hastens their imperiled condition. We likely experienced over ten birds, of various species, die from exhaustion, starvation, and hypothermia during those few hours of birding. This magical event takes its toll on songbirds.

How to capture a migratory bird fallout?

At one point during this bird fallout, I put my camera down. I captured more of the day by simply watching and experiencing this event. However, fallouts can present unique photography opportunities. These exhausted sky gems are often too tired to worry about predators, so photo opportunities increase. However, make sure you are being ethical when photographing these tired beauties.

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