Avian Hitchhiking: Lost at Sea

An unusual woodpecker goes along for a ride aboard Firefly. What birds have hitchhiked on your boat?

Flicker

A yellow-shafted flicker takes a break from coastal offshore flight on the preventer of the 39-foot Firefly.Poupette Smith

The woodpecker circled before landing on our 39-foot sailboat with a weary flap of wings that made clear that it was no pelagic. The bird perched on Firefly's preventer, the line that stops the boom from jibing, and rested, eyes drooping, as we hurtled south in the September nor'easter. We were 100 miles from terra firma, leaving New England behind and heading toward Delaware Bay.

The bird's markings—polka-dot belly, yellow underwings, splash of red, and black moustache—confirmed its identity, but was this male yellow-shafted flicker (Colaptes auratus) hailing us in trust or defeat? Was our encounter accidental, or had Firefly's winglike sails sent some empathic signal that beckoned? Bird and sailor intersect not infrequently in midocean, but when the twain meet, salvation or death hang in the balance. Who saves whom is a question of luck: Those venturing too close to Steve Callahan, adrift in a life raft years ago, contributed all too materially to his now-famous survival.

Migration is nothing new to birds, yet the trip doesn’t always go as planned. Proof of this lies in the quantity that arrive exhausted aboard ships and offshore oil rigs, and who’s to say this isn’t the tip of the iceberg? How many are doomed for missing the proverbial needle in the haystack? In different parts of the world, Leo, my husband, and I have transported many an avian hitchhiker, including cattle egrets (east of the Carolinas), swallows (in the Bahamas), pigeons (in the North Atlantic), bats (off French Guyana), and hoopoe (off West Africa). Alas, many perished after alighting, for try as we did to tempt them with nuts, seeds, or fresh water, the treats remained untouched. One minute they acted bold, hopping within reach or sleeping atop the off watch; the next, they lay dead. If these birds could speak, such tales they’d recount.

The flicker moved to a spot under the dinghy stored upside-down on deck, where he was sheltered but hidden from cockpit view, and as the hours passed, we had no way of knowing if he remained alive, had died, or was taking his chances by resuming his journey after a brief respite. At our change of watch, I noticed the bird had reappeared and was now resting on a nearby life ring aft of the steering wheel.
Closer inspection revealed a moustache-less yellow-shafted flicker: a female!

Monogamous, flickers couple for life. Was she his mate? Had they been travelling as a pair? Or were they caught out separately and an entire flock dispersed by the same storm, as happens? I'd never know. One thing for sure: They were out of their element. Though Firefly skirted the limits of the Atlantic flyway, one of four North American migratory routes, the passage took us well seaward of stopover sites along the New Jersey coast. The female kept to the life ring, awash in spray from breakers but safe. She eyed the helmsman while pecking the antenna and flicking her tongue at imaginary ants. Although pitching as if in a rodeo, she showed no sign of leaving.

I wondered how the flickers lost their bearings. Wind and ocean are powerful forces, capable of diverting bird and boat hundreds of miles off course.

My guide for European birds by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds includes a section on “Vagrants;” it identifies rare accidentals, including flickers, arriving in the United Kingdom from Asia, North America, and Africa.

How far the migrants drift and whether they make it across an ocean depend on both external and internal factors: Fledglings are more apt to founder, making errors in navigation, and climatic change promises to worsen the situation.

But weather proves no less destructive to seabirds near land: In the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hurricane Hugo swept up pelicans and trapped them in the eye, where they flew round and round under blue skies until they died of exhaustion.

Firefly closed in on New Jersey, and we expected to round up into the bay by midnight. The closer we got, the better the flickers' chance of reaching shore in the gale-force conditions. Cape May and Delaware Bay abound in sanctuaries, and I knew that this female, and male, if he were still aboard, would sense Firefly's proximity to land and make a beeline for the coast off our beam.

But did she have the strength, and could she do it in the dark?

Sure enough, although we never caught the actual flight—navigating this busy approach demands attention—come nightfall, the female was gone.