More than a century after the advent of commercial aviation, scientists continue to learn more about the efficient flight methods of the original airborne navigators: birds. Just five years ago, researchers learned that common swifts can remain aloft for months during their annual migration. Magnificent frigate birds, a species of seabird, have been recorded in continuous flight for up to two months. Scientists often learn these impressive stats through bird banding—the practice of capturing, tagging and releasing birds to track their movements. Here, discover notable avian flight paths, and learn where you can migrate to see some special species year-round.
These tall, long-necked birds are draped in muted gray and brown plumage, but the pop of ruby red on their heads recalls the flamboyant eye shadow of a Vegas showgirl. Cranes perform their own elegant feather dances to attract mates, and for good reason—the devoted birds pair for life. While some resident subspecies can be found year-round in Florida, others migrate from Canada and Alaska to as far south as northern Mexico. In 1975, a sandhill crane was banded in Chevak, Alaska, and recaptured 13 years later in Durango, Mexico—4,266 miles away.
The difference in appearance between male and female scarlet tanagers is stark: Females are a drab olive-yellow with darker shading on their wings, while males are instantly recognizable in the spring and summer, when their bodies are bright red with jet-black wings. After breeding, males molt to olive-yellow plumage similar to that of females, but they maintain their black wings. These variations can make identification difficult to the untrained eye, but bird banding makes it possible to track the migrations of individuals, no matter their appearance. In 1964, a scarlet tanager was banded in Bennington, Vermont, and recaptured 2,165 miles away, in Chiapas, Mexico, just two months later.
Like the scarlet tanager, the male western tanager is more brightly colored than the female, with breeding males distinguishable by their orange heads and faces. But unlike the scarlet, as its name suggests, this bird is most commonly found in western North America. The species also ranges farther north than any other tanager in the summer, and migrates as far as southern Central America. In 1978, a western tanager was banded in Camp Sherman, Oregon, and recaptured in Yepocapa, Guatemala, six months later—and 2,732 miles away.
Seemingly straight out of the pages of a paint-by-numbers book, the male painted bunting is one of the most visually striking bird species in the U.S. In January, a vagrant bunting captivated amateur and lifelong birders alike when it was spotted at Maryland’s Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park. However, sightings are much more common farther south, with Florida serving as a winter home for the colorful birds. In October 2015, a painted bunting was captured and banded by scientists at Cape Florida on Key Biscayne before being recaptured by banders on Georgia’s St. Simons Island in June 2018—two years and eight months later.
In January of this year, an intrepid snowy owl became Internet-famous when it was spotted in Central Park, marking the first sighting of the Arctic raptor in the Manhattan park since 1890. Wandering outside its typical range is not unusual for the snowy owl—the species is an irruptive migrator, meaning it occasionally flies farther south in large numbers. Though its range typically extends throughout Canada and Greenland, the owl can be spotted in the Great Lakes region and New England each winter. During irruptive years, snowy owls have been sighted as far south as Texas and Florida.
The vibrant, color-blocked green jay is not a migratory bird, so you’ll be the one who needs to fly to see it in the wild. Though the green jay is primarily found in Mexico and parts of South America, it is also a resident of South Texas. Its green feathers are easily camouflageable within the lush landscape of the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, so look for the bird’s royal-blue head and black throat—or, for some hassle-free birding, keep an eye out at one of the refuge’s feeders, where green jays congregate.
There are four species of puffin around the world, but only the Atlantic puffin is found on the East Coast of North America. During beak—er, peak—season from May through August, visitors can book boat tours to watch the adorable clown-faced birds feed their young on Maine’s many islands, including Eastern Egg Rock, where population restoration efforts have yielded more than 170 nesting puffin pairs.