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What is a migratory bird fallout?

Updated: Apr 15

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
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

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. That bloom can only mean one thing: hordes of birds filling the sky and confusing poorly trained weather people. (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.

A Philadelphia Vireo searches for food amongst the fallout
A Philadelphia Vireo searches for food amongst the fallout

Our anticipation built as we reached the bottom of the causeway from the mainland of Texas, going into South Padre Island. We had just snagged an Aplomado Falcon, a life bird for most of us. Morale was at a presumed peak. However, we were about to be in a migratory bird paradise, and our joy would soon skyrocket.

When we hit the midway of the bridge, the day changed. As I looked out the window, the gray sky was dotted with yellows, oranges, and pinks. Confusion led to realization. This day... was no ordinary day of birding. This was no ordinary storm. This was no ordinary morning. THIS... was a migratory bird 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. A fallout so large we did not make the end of the causeway before we pulled over and began birding. A fallout so impressive we had a Black-whiskered Vireo before walking 5 feet.

A fallout to remember.


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So, 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 types of 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.
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 southern 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 grabbed our gear and proceeded into the harsh 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.


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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.

Image 1: Thousands of orioles were attempting to find food. Birding center volunteers put out hundreds of oranges to help feed them.

Image 2: A male Rose-breasted Grosbeak came out of the brush for a proper viewing.

The day was not all wondrous. The dark side of a bird fallout is its physical toll 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.


My favorite bridge camera recommendation for birding: Sony RX10 IV!

Best Birding Camera: Panasonic Lumix FZ80


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Zach is showing off gear and encouraging visitors to check out his favorite gear on his Amazon Associate page.
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