Some events are simply too big for us to fathom.

Some events are simply too big for us to fathom. Bird migration, for instance, happens twice a year on a planetary scale that bruises the brain, so we’re forced to look for evidence in the traces around us: Skeins of geese and vanguards of vireos in the sky; a four-day mob of warblers passing through the neighborhood on their way from somewhere to somewhere else. A waxwing slain beneath a living-room window, its biannual journey stopped dead by the sky in a pane of glass. The Baltimore oriole that arrives in the yard next to mine every May 1 or 2 and starts advertising his availability for a mate. Up to 3.5 billion birds and more than 600 species migrate across North America each spring, mostly at night, but usually we can see them only looking up from the ground.

BirdCast lets us look down from above, and that changes everything. A joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Colorado State University and U. Mass Amherst, it’s a website that lets us see them from a vantage point hundreds of miles above Earth, capturing each night’s continental migration as collected by over 140 radar stations across the country — data gathered about birds on the wing. The site went live to the public in 2018, around the time my own birding was deepening from a lifelong side project into something more personally, even spiritually, necessary — a way of being in the world that I had trouble finding elsewhere. After 40 mostly satisfying years as a film critic, I began to feel all those imagined visions closing around my head. I yearned to shake them off, to return to reality; birding has come to seem one of the more graceful ways to do that. […]

To me, the nightly BirdCast map has come to mean a great deal, not least a corrective to our human-centric view of the planet. BirdCast reorients us in both space and time. It shifts our understanding of ecosystems from the narrow — the street, the neighborhood, the town — to a vast globe that birds traverse twice a year because they must. Looking at that ceaseless neon flow forces a viewer to acknowledge patterns that long predate our appearance on the stage and, unless we succeed in our drive to kill everything on the planet, could long outlast us. Within this epoch the thing that matters — a bird setting out on a journey a thousand miles long, not data but feather and bone — is still here. But BirdCast helps us see that one creature and ourselves as fractals of a larger picture in which we are infinitely smaller yet bound by conscience and consciousness to obligation.

—  Ty Burr, from “Trying to Find Your Place in the World? Try Birding From a Different Angle”. (The New York Times · April 18, 2023)


  • DK Photo: April 9, 2023, 6:30am Cove Island Park. More photos here.
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