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Dauphin Island At Its Best
By Greg Jackson

Dauphin Island, Alabama, is famous for "fallouts" in spring migration, but this is at best an uncommon event. Even active birders rarely witness large precipitations of transients. Usually fallouts are associated with fronts crossing the northern Gulf, but the timing of the systems is crucial. Even when rain (most important) and north winds hit the coast during the day, if there is not a significant movement of birds approaching that area, no fallout will occur.

Conditions looked good for such an event Tuesday, April 28. Skies in southern Mexico and northern Central America, primary or secondary origins of many migrants, were fairly clear Monday evening. A slow-moving, complex frontal system engaged the northern Gulf during the day Tuesday, primed to ambush the unsuspecting trans-Gulf migrants. Heavy rain soaked the Alabama coast beginning in mid-morning, and by late morning flocks of passerines appeared at the Shell Mounds in the eastern part of the island. Venetia Friend and I birded this excellent site for a time, observing parties of Red-eyed Vireos, Scarlet Tanagers, and various other species moving through the trees.

A sudden wind shift from southeast to north occurred just before noon. We decided to scout other areas of the island to investigate what was obviously a fallout in progress. Just after noon we headed toward the narrow, treeless West End. Driving down the main road revealed waves of low-flying passerines moving east, most close to the shore of Mississippi Sound. We wanted to intercept these birds, so positioned ourselves near the Sound at the western terminus of the paved road, where the island is only a few hundred yards wide. For about an hour, we stood directly in the current of exhausted migrants, the majority flying only a few feet over the ground. Looking west with binoculars, you could see the waves approaching like an invading force. Most were in small flocks of 5-50 birds, usually with gaps of 10-15 seconds between parties. A few flocks were higher, about 200 feet in the air, but most were flying directly by us as if we were invisible. These birds were concerned only with moving to an area of safety and food, and a couple of soggy, wind-blown birders perched on sand dunes didn’t seem too much of a threat.

Numbers were difficult to determine, but we estimated a minimum of  50-100 birds per minute over the course of that hour. This equates to 3000-6000 birds in an hour, but I stress the conservative nature of this estimate; the real total could have been higher. Regardless of the true number, the thrill was being literally immersed in this torrent of  birds. To have Eastern Kingbirds, thrushes, Red-eyed Vireos, warblers, Scarlet and Summer tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, and Bobolinks streaming past on both sides, often within a few feet, was an exhilarating experience. I’ve stood in such a river of transients on the west end of Dauphin previously, but it had been many years since I enjoyed such an event.

Flight identification of most of the birds was possible, usually without binoculars due to the slow flight and close flybys. At least half were Red-eyed Vireos, with Scarlet Tanagers, Eastern Kingbirds, and Indigo Buntings taking the next three positions (in that order); interestingly, the first three winter entirely or primarily in South America. Warblers comprised only a minor component, with small numbers and only nine species identified; still, to see that many warblers in a grassy field was remarkable.

We left after about an hour, as I needed to pick up my (temporarily neglected!) wife back at the motel. When we returned about 30 minutes later, the event was over. The birds appeared to disperse widely over the island, especially populating the heavily-wooded Bird Sanctuary near the East End. Many may have continued east to Ft. Morgan, as I heard reports of large flocks moving through the Stables woods there, most without halting.

I can’t wait for the next fallout, and know where to stand when it happens! 

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