Ithaca Stadium Fallout


(This 761st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 30, 2005.)


On the night of October 11-12, some Ithaca, New York birders had a once-in-a-lifetime experience.


Mike Harvey and Tim Lenz are associated with Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology. Here is Harvey's account: "One of the most spectacular avian spectacles I have witnessed occurred tonight on campus. After a late night at the lab, Tim was dropping me off at my house when we noticed incredible numbers of flight calls overhead. In fact, Tim estimated over 150 calls per minute.


"We noticed the university football stadium lights were on, and thought that perhaps the combination of this bright light source and low clouds were drawing in large numbers of birds. As we approached the stadium, it was obvious something big was going on. We alerted colleagues and soon a dozen other birders joined us.


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Birders in Schoellkopf Stadium

Photo by Daniel J. Lebbin


"Within and in the trees surrounding the stadium were literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of migrants. Savannah sparrows blanketed the Astroturf, common yellowthroats flit among the bleachers, and yellow-rumped warblers sallied low overhead. Most of the birds appeared to be feeding, largely on moths, and all were approachable and easy to see in the brilliant stadium lights.


"Almost as interesting as what we saw were the species not represented on the ground in this flight. Thrushes were very scarce relative to the numbers we were hearing, and vireos and kinglets were completely absent.


"We canvassed the area between roughly 9:30 p.m. and almost 2 a.m., when the lights were shut off."


Captured yellowthroat

Photo by Daniel J. Lebbin


Lebbin added: "When I arrived I expected to find many dead birds from collisions but was relieved and amazed that most of the birds seemed to be doing just fine and many were taking advantage of the light to forage. That said, we did rescue several yellowthroats from open lighted doorways when the lights turned off outside and at least one dead ovenbird and one female black-throated blue warbler were picked up.


"The stadium lights provided sufficient illumination for us to watch the birds and for the warblers to actively forage. The foraging continued and perhaps even escalated when the rain picked up. Although few thrushes were seen on the ground, we did hear a wood thrush low (from a tree) late in the evening and I saw a possible gray-cheeked thrush in a tree by the stadium early in the evening."


A remarkable 17 warbler species were recorded: Northern parula, American redstart, ovenbird, common yellowthroat, and Tennessee, Nashville, chestnut-sided, magnolia, black-throated blue, blackburnian, yellow-rumped, black-throated green, palm, bay-breasted, blackpoll, black-and-white and hooded warblers. At least 500 individual warblers were counted.


Non-birders may not realize how unusual that is. To place that number in perspective, in a lifetime of birding I have seen that many warbler species in a single day less than a dozen times.


The rarest birds recorded were at least four dickcissels and two to three blue grosbeaks. The dickcissel's range is normally limited to hundreds of miles to our west and the blue grosbeak's the same distance to our south. These and many other species were identified by call flying overhead.


The ability to name a bird by its nocturnal call notes is quite new in the ornithological community. But just as many birds are readily identified by song like the robin's "cheery-up, cheery-ee" and the goldfinch's "per-chick-a-ree", species flying overhead in the dark are now identified by serious birders who only hear their brief chips. I have a CD that records many of these calls, none of which I have mastered.


Some of the other birds found were: great blue and green herons, red-tailed hawk, a half dozen shorebird species, kingfisher, phoebe, catbird, pipit, scarlet tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, indigo bunting and five different sparrows.


Finally, Lebbin summarized: "Is there any other place than Cornell where over a dozen birders -- dominated by college students -- would gather to watch birds at night in cold rain? The band members and guys playing pickup football on the field surely had no idea what they were missing."


Congratulations to these young ornithologists who grasped this rare opportunity to sample the multitude of birds that pass this way on their semiannual nocturnal migrations.