Why Flying Lessons

by Anders Gyllenhaal

A Painted Bunting sings with all his might in a Bayou south of New Orleans.


We’ll never forget the first time we saw a Painted Bunting, singing with all its heart, deep in a marsh near New Orleans. For four years we had been searching for this clown-colored bird, but we always seemed to be a week behind the Bunting’s migration path. When we heard its unmistakable trill that morning, Beverly was standing on a bench. She got so excited, she toppled right off.  And  then we stood there in giddy awe, watching and photographing this precious performance for almost an hour.

It’s easy to see why there’s a boom underway in bird watching, documented recently in an article, here, in The New York Times. People get attached to birds in all sorts of ways, but why do so many of us get lured so deeply in? Ask a group of birders, and  you’re likely to hear things like “it’s the lure of the hunt, spending time outdoors, the astounding beauty of the birds themselves.”

Some days you won’t see a darn thing. And so when you do end up with a glimpse, and sometimes an entire symphony, endorphins can go haywire.

If you need a dose of sheer awe, grab some binoculars and go find a bird.

Last summer we packed up our Airstream trailer and traveled more than 9,000 miles in a sweep through the South and along the Gulf coast, then up through New England and eastern Canada. We saw a dozen new warblers, puffins, hawks, humming birds, vireos, kingfishers and flycatchers.

Along the way, we came to a realization: Birding isn’t only about finding the species you’re after. If we take a step back, if we look at the bigger picture, there are all sorts of lessons to be learned from the birds around us.

No other segment of wildlife is so constantly on display – available to all, no matter where you live – often by simply looking up. Birds play a prominent role in teaching us about the state of our environment, including climate change, one of the most important topics of our time.

White Pelicans gather on a remote island off the coast of St. Petersburg, Florida.

An American Robin on the hunt

But as descendants of dinosaurs and one of the longest-running species of the Earth,  there’s so much more to know about mating, feeding, breeding and how birds manage to pull off their mystifying migrations season after season.

A Cardinal on takeoff

Only recently have we come to realize how intelligent birds are. Researchers have discovered startling practices that reflect a level of smarts, the use of tools and evidence of emotions never before imagined. The 2016 book, “The Genius of Birds,” by Jennifer Ackerman, explores the intelligence of birds and their humanity — right down to the way crows will leave gifts for people they get to know and like.

An Osprey carries a good-sized fish off for lunch.

Birds possess powers that people have always longed for, chief among them the ability to fly. We’ve already learned our own version of flight, partly by watching how birds do it. Today, researchers are studying birds for further flying abilities, such as how Hummingbirds are able to fly backwards and how flocks of birds can maneuver in a remarkable synchronized fashion. The avian aspects of flight may eventually teach humans things like how to better program drones.

When we venture into the world of birds, we’re forced to adapt to their way of doing things. One of the most powerful lessons we’ve been working on has to do with patience, stillness, and the need to just stop talking and listen.

Female Orchard Oriole

The two of us experience birding in slightly different perspectives. Beverly is more attuned to what the pursuit requires of us. Anders is drawn to lessons in how birds behave and how they adapt, thrive and sometimes fail to thrive.

But both of us came home from our summer journey thinking about what we can learn on the birding trail, hence this website, Flying Lessons. We’re still novices compared to many of the veteran birders we’ve met. But as life-long journalists, we realized we wanted to try and share the wider stories, and Anders’s photography, as we strive to learn about – and to learn from – the birds around us.

-Anders and Beverly


Flying Lessons: What we're learning from the birds
Flying Lessons: What we're learning from the birds
When you have a free moment today, here's a timely piece on the original version of the bird we've built our holiday around. https://flyinglessons.us/2020/11/22/can-the-wild-turkey-survive-thanksgiving-is-the-least-of-its-troubles-2/
Flying Lessons: What we're learning from the birds
Flying Lessons: What we're learning from the birds
How does a tiny sandpiper that weighs about as much as a golf ball fly 6,000 miles twice a year? Researchers are finally getting some clues that may help save the Sanderling. https://flyinglessons.us/2020/11/17/can-we-save-this-globe-trotting-sandpiper-only-if-we-can-unravel-its-secrets/
Flying Lessons: What we're learning from the birds
Flying Lessons: What we're learning from the birds
The Wild Turkey may be the star of the Thanksgiving story, but it doesn't have it easy these day. An update on the famous bird. https://flyinglessons.us/2020/11/22/can-the-wild-turkey-survive-thanksgiving-is-the-least-of-its-troubles-2/
Flying Lessons: What we're learning from the birds
Flying Lessons: What we're learning from the birds
This tiny, hyperative sandpiper flies as far as 6,000 miles during migration now coming to a close. Here's the story of the scientists studying how the birds pull this off in hopes of saving the species.
Flying Lessons: What we're learning from the birds
Flying Lessons: What we're learning from the birds
Seabirds may be the most intriguing birds on Earth. Here's a close-up look at these species that are so hard to get to see. https://flyinglessons.us/2020/10/25/petrels-and-shearwaters-the-coolest-birds-you-never-see/
Flying Lessons: What we're learning from the birds
Flying Lessons: What we're learning from the birds
Here’s a cool blog from a birder making a difference down in the Keys. Love the title, too!
Flying Lessons: What we're learning from the birds
Birding By Bus
Right now, just as it happens every fall, a major biological phenomenon happens across North America, right under our noses. If you don’t stop to look around outside the confines of your home, your car, or your workplace, you may not even be aware that it’s taking place. With the changing of the seasons, we are now in the midst of the massive fall migration of millions of birds from the north as they make their way south for the winter. It’s an annual ritual where birds travel long distances for food and resources. In the fall, they head south for warmer climates with food and less severe weather. In the spring, it’s a northward journey to the breeding grounds. Our home base of Miami lies right on the Atlantic Flyway, the so-called “Interstate” for our feathered friends. This flyway, a heavily used passage for migrating birds, traverses the east coast of North America. When it approaches Florida, the route diverges into a path over Eastern Mexico or another path across the Florida Straits and Caribbean Sea via Cuba and Jamaica and onward to northern South America. Birds may experience many hazards along the way that can result in mortality — adverse weather, natural predators, feral cats, window strikes, and collisions with cars, to name just a few. Fortunately, along the Atlantic land-based route, there are sources of food, water, and shelter over its entire length, so the birds can make pitstops — just like we might pull off the Florida Turnpike into a service plaza to get gas or a bite to eat.

Over the past eight years, we’ve been involved with a long-term study (now in its 19th year) of bird migration along the Atlantic Flyway, specifically on the barrier island of Key Biscayne. On the southern tip of the Key lies Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, host to a restored patch of forest (tropical hardwood hammock) that was replanted with native Florida vegetation following massive destruction by Hurricane Andrew in ’92. The park is a welcomed oasis in heavily developed Miami-Dade County for migrating birds that need to rest under the cover of the forest and refuel on berries, fruits, insects, and other food items in order to continue their over-water flights. Although many birds never stop and simply fly straight over to points further south, some will drop in if the weather is not favorable for flight. Additionally, some may stop for rest and food for a few days, and some might even spend the winter in this location.

Here's a time-lapsed glimpse into what it looks like to capture information about bird migration... Marc processing captured birds in the banding tent and collecting valuable data from each bird. Stay tuned for our next post where we'll tell you a little more!


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