There are a number of birds that are perfectly happy spending months or even years out on the ocean. These pelagic birds often come to land only to breed and care for their babies until they are old enough to fly and fish on their own. Other birds, like those that visit our backyard feeders, however, cannot soar tirelessly, even during migration flights, and must periodically touch down on solid ground to feed and rest. While we always think of the homing pigeon and the annual migration flights of birds as evidence of their unerring sense of direction, things don't always go as planned, sometimes with disastrous results.
One such event occurred in early October this year, off the coast of Hampton, New Hampshire, as witnessed and recounted by a fisherman aboard one of the Al Gauron party fishing boats. It was very foggy night and morning with visibility near zero. With forecasts of lifting fog, the boat headed out to Jeffries Ledge for some deep jigging. It was an otherwise normal morning, calm seas, warm for the season.
Then, birds started appearing around the ship. That's not too unusual, but instead of gulls, petrels or other pelagics, these birds were ordinary land birds. The fisherman who recounted the story was not a birder, and could not identify species, but he said they were ordinary land birds that he sees almost every day at home in the summer.
These are not birds that are built for spending large amounts of time over the ocean. The birds, he said, were completely exhausted. As the boat became visible in the lifting fog, the birds began landing on the boat. Some were so desperate for rest that they even landed on the shoulders and heads of fisherman. Others made awkward water landings, wings outspread in the water, unable to rise again without firm purchase. The fisherman who told the story said there were "hundreds" of birds almost falling from the sky.
Those landing in the water did not go unnoticed from the denizens of the deep. Blue sharks began rising up to swallow the hapless birds that fluttered helplessly in the water. A quick upwelling of water from beneath the bird and another disappeared into the mouth of a shark.
These birds had almost certainly been headed south for the winter. Their innate guidance systems probably had them headed in the right general direction. Flying south from Maine, however, put them directly over the ocean, farther and farther from land. Without the visual reference of the ground and the shoreline, they had no way to tell that they were on a course for disaster.