If you were a bird, a small one, maybe a Palm Warbler, or a Blue-winged Warbler or perhaps an Indigo Bunting, perhaps, say, this one:
If you were an Indigo bunting and you were down on the west coast of Costa Rica, spending winter where it was nice and warm, and you decided it was time to head north again, you’d first fly across Costa Rica, then Nicaragua, and then perhaps stopover for a bit in Honduras, and then maybe go for the short hop over the water to Cuba, but, to get to the woodlands of the Great Lakes area, which is where all your bunting friends are spending the summer these days, at some point you’d have to head out over the Gulf of Mexico, starting from either Cuba or Honduras.
Either way, it’s going to be a long flight over water.
You are, just for reference, about five inches long, weigh a couple ounces, have a heart about the size of your pinky nail and are about to fly several hundred miles without stopping, day and night. You’re not very waterproof and sink like a stone, albeit a small one. But over the ocean stopping is not an option, barring a lucky piece of driftwood or a boat. Eventually you’d make it to some Florida barrier island in state roughly similar to what those doomed early polar explorers looked like shortly before they collapsed and died.
But, assuming you make it, you just might find yourself, exhausted and starving, on the shores of St George Island.
St George Island is an important stopover for dozens of species of birds coming up from Cuba, the Yucatan and points well south of there, all the way to central South America in some cases. But of course most of St. George is covered in houses and not a very good place to try to find food. If you’re a bird. Or a person for that matter.
Luckily for the birds, the east end of the island is a state park with a few square miles of land set aside to be something like it was before Europeans arrived, what I imagine the birds, somewhat like the Hopi, refer to as “the previous world”.
Alas we all live in this world, so if you want to see birds, to the state park you go.
And we did. Another short travel day, six miles and we were done, a campsite among the birds. And, as you can see by the list at the bottom of the page, birds there were. And birders there were as well. We weren’t in camp more than hour before a couple different fellow bird watchers stopped by to let us know where the good spots were. I think sometimes birders hesitate to tell us anything because they’re more or less sending small children into the woods, and birds like quiet, whereas small children do not. But at least some of them take the risk, for which I’m thankful.
I find it a little odd to know that, as I sit comfortably on the beach, sipping ice cold beverages and munching on peanuts and pork skins, somewhere overhead the drama of migration is playing out and tiny little things like Indigo Buntings are completing a journey far more impressive and grand than any I’m likely to undertake1.
Higher up, above the buntings and warblers there’s even more impressive migrations happening, though many of them are accidental. The sky is full of insects. Spiders in the clouds, insects on the high winds, tons and tons of biomass moving over our heads all the time. All these concurrent lives of which we know almost nothing passing overhead, almost unnoticed save for the moments when you stop and consider them for a moment or two.
Do they consider us from up there, looking down at the strange meaty, fleshy creatures lying in the sand, apparently doing nothing but snacking? Or do they too largely just pass on by, ignoring everything else in their own quest for their version of peanuts and pork skins?
Aside from our impressive feats of seafaring, humans are not big travelers, as a species anyway. We got everywhere eventually, a testament to our adaptability, but also something that took a very long time to happen relative to the rest of the animal kingdom. And compared to epic twice yearly migrations of birds, insects, even some mammals, we’re more or less homebodies. ↩