No. 7: Birds and Vismig

by Frank Izaguirre

Species: Common nighthawk, Chordeiles minor

Question: What are some of your favorite examples of or experiences with vismig (visible migration)?

It’s a bit different with a baby: no chases for me this summer, and even patch birding has been minimal.

But that’s ok, because the birds make it ok.

Birders know that one of the great things about birding—something that distinguishes birding from most and possibly all other forms of natural history study—is that we can make birding just about as demanding or relaxing as we want it to be. We can travel to the ends of the Earth in pursuit of birds, or we can just let them come to us. Many birders choose some of both, but regardless of the balance, wonderful birds come and go and live alongside us just about everywhere.

So it was for me on one recent early-afternoon walk with my wife, Adrienne, and four-month-old daughter, Maya. The usual suspects were about the neighborhood, but a pair of common nighthawks flying over a row of houses punctuated the excursion. It was too early in the day for these birds to be out hunting, and they seemed to be flying purposefully through and away from the area.

“Vismig!” I said.

Vismig means visible migration: when you see birds actually in the act of migration, rather than stopping over to rest and refuel on their migration journeys.

I believe vismig is a Britishism that has migrated to North American birding circles, but I stand to be corrected on that—please comment if you have more info.

At any rate, vismig, when we’re lucky enough to enjoy it, is glorious in its simplicity: how cool is it to actually see a bird that is definitely, at that exact moment, migrating?

It’s often easier to glimpse vismig with the bigger birds: raptors and waterfowl, for instance. No doubt that is in large part true because the big birds are easier to spot (and identify) in the sky, even when far away, but also because the smaller birds often move in the darkness—hearing them through nocturnal flight calls is far easier than seeing them with our own eyes.

I think of vismig as something that’s easier to experience in the fall: spring is so fast and chaotic that it’s often harder to see birds actually in the act of migration. But fall migration is slower—the birds are a bit more willing to take their time getting to their wintering spots—and, maybe even more importantly, there are many more birds around.

A favorite vismig moment of mine from years past was from a fall trip to the Florida Keys, when Adrienne, two other birding buddies, and I turned a corner to see four, five, six…eight ospreys cruising along the coast toward and then right past us on their migration journeys to parts south! Far and away the most individuals of that species I’d ever glimpsed in a single view.

Eight ospreys in one view in the Florida Keys: a vismig victory.

Some of the great birding destinations in the ABA Area, for instance Whitefish Point and Hawk Mountain, are at their essence superb locations to experience vismig: those are such great places to see spectacular numbers and varieties of birds on the move.

Birders like birding because it connects us to larger things, and vismig is an especially pronounced moment of connection: that bird there is migrating. Like, right now! Whether it’s southbound ospreys or neighborhood nighthawks, experiencing vismig, even with familiar species, is a thrilling highlight of fall birding. What are some of your favorite examples of or experiences with vismig?