Tuesday afternoon I caught a boat to Star Island with a group of folks organized by Eric Masterson. The goal of the trip was to experience the northward migration of birds and, hopefully, to make a few good photographs. Star Island is one of the Isles of Shoals, a group of small islands several miles off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire. I have made this trip with Eric several times in years past.
Small song birds migrate at night. They take flight at dusk and fly in the dark. As the dawn arrives the birds look for a spot to land and spend the day feeding (refueling) before continuing on their journey the next evening.
Coastal islands and headlands typically have large concentrations of migrants. Birds, which get blown out over the water at night, head for the first land they see as the sun rises. Thus these birds get concentrated on islands such as Star Island. This fact coupled with the fact that most of the vegetation on Star Island is low or medium height shrubs makes for good bird photography.
Contrast this scenario with that further inland. Birds flying over the New Hampshire woods simply settle down diffusely into the canopy of the forest as the sun rises. There are many migrant birds present but at low density and situated mainly high in the treetops. Thus they are difficult to see and even harder to photograph.
Monday night saw more than a million birds pass over Rockingham County (which includes coastal New Hampshire). Arriving on Star Island at about 4 PM on Tuesday afternoon, we spent several, fruitful hours watching and photographing abundant birds.
Over Tuesday night, mainly because of a stiff headwind, the number of birds passing over Rockingham County dropped to only a bit more than a hundred thousand. The wind picked up as the day broke and a steady twenty knot wind blew out of the north all day on Wednesday. The birding was significantly slower, but still interesting.
On Thursday, we awoke (at 5 AM) to the news that only 8000 birds were estimated to have passed over Rockingham County the previous night… ugh!! Eric had placed his sound recording equipment out at about 11 PM, as the wind abated and recorded the calls of birds passing overhead for about six hours. At lunch time, Eric reported that he had recorded exactly six migrants flying over Star Island in that interval. Needless-to-say there were very few migrant birds around on Thursday. We persisted and spent the day observing/photographing mainly the local, nesting birds (e.g. gulls, grackles, red-winged blackbirds, common eiders, etc.) until it was time to head back to Portsmouth on the boat at 4 PM.