In the spring and autumn, these lighthouses serve as a backdrop for thousands of birds passing overhead during the daylight hours, but at dusk the weary flocks may fly in and roost on aerial wires, rooftops, clotheslines, and the light towers themselves. Or, they may continue on their long journeys, passing close to the lighthouses. In the process, the bewildered, avian travelers are sometimes injured or killed:
"I remember being on Bardsey Island off the coast of North Wales on what experts called a 'bird night,' wrote birdwatcher Wynford Vaughn-Thomas in 1985. "The swarms of small birds poured onto the island, some of them exhausted after long flights from distant Africa. They could not resist the attraction of the night light and, when dawn came, the evidence of that fatal attraction lay sadly at the foot of the tower." Today, Bardsey Lighthouse is home to a bird observatory. A current observer named Rich noted on his blog "Lighthouse Journal" that the lighthouse is sometimes a bane to the birds:
Exactly what lures birds to lighthouses is
still unknown. Tall towers, with brilliant, flashing beams seem to hold the
greatest attraction, but any lighthouse is a target, whether by accident or
deliberate aim. Logbooks make frequent mention of encounters with birds and are
prolific sources of information for ornithologists.
The most recent theories of bird navigation suggest long flights are accomplished using a combination of celestial cues (the position of the sun, moon, and stars), known landmarks, and a keen sensitivity to the earth's magnetic field. Birds appear to have amazing built-in compasses and sextants, not to mention excellent memories for the lay of the land, that allow them to monitor their flight patterns, comparing them against magnetic north and true north.
Lighthouses may disrupt this navigational
ability and disorient birds. Perhaps the birds mistake the bright beacon for
the moon or the sun, or on starless nights it becomes an immense, blinding
star. A flashing or revolving beacon adds to the confusion and may contribute
to the inexplicable bird-suicides and bird-attacks that have occurred at some
Whether by choice or by necessity, many lightkeepers became avid birdwatchers. The keepers at Boston's Graves Lighthouse were beguiled by the cheerful little rock plovers who visited the rocky islet. The Shanahans of Sanibel Island Lighthouse in South Florida tamed a pelican in the 1880s, one of many wild animals that kept the thirteen children of the keeper amused. Matinicus Rock's keepers worked amid a breeding ground of comical, clown-faced puffins, members of the auk family who return to breed in the burrows from which they hatch and fledge.
Heligoland (Helgoland) Lighthouse (pictured below in an old postcard view), in the North Sea thirty miles off the German coast, is so often the scene of massive and noisy flybys that an ornithological observatory has been set up there. According to German bird authority H. Gatke, October is the most active month when "under the intense glare of the light swarms of larks, starlings, and thrushes career around in ever-varying density, like showers of brilliant sparks or huge snowflakes driven onwards by a gale." Sometimes he observed predatory owls swooping through the beams in pursuit of a midnight meal. On October 28, 1882, so many tiny, golden-crested wrens swarmed about the lighthouse, the keepers could only describe them as a "blizzard of birds."
Great rookeries of seabirds live on a number of lighthouse sites. Navassa Light, between Jamaica and Hispaniola, sits on a 250-foot high coral atoll and guides shipping to the Panama Canal. Commissioner of lighthouses, George R. Putnam, described the island as having "the appearance of a great petrified sponge." Pock-marked volcanic limestone, extreme drought, and unbearable remoteness from civilization made the desolate island a difficult assignment for yesterday's lightkeepers. Other than the lighthouse, the only human activity there has been the collection of guano for use in making fertilizer. Tons of it are still harvested annually, due to the large numbers of seabirds that make their home on the island.
Southeast Farallon Light off San Francisco also has a rookery of seabirds. Nineteenth century lightkeepers, though miserable from the noise and smell of the birds, were thankful for their presence. Bird eggs were an important part of their diet and also a second source of income, for the eggs were a coveted exotic food in San Francisco, particularly in Chinatown. "Egg wars" erupted when collectors argued over who should harvest the eggs. Gathering them was no easy task. The island's rough terrain and the aggressiveness of the nesting birds called for enormous personal fortitude.
An old engraving from Harper's Magazine showed an egg picker on Farallone Island fighting off the seabirds. He worked on the slopes below the lighthouse.
Ornithologists have long known that lighthouses provide excellent opportunity for the study of birds. In 1860, Texas lightkeepers were asked by the Smithsonian Institution to collect wild bird eggs, and great effort was made to educate the keepers, not only about the proper methods for collection, but also the importance of bird study. More than one lightkeeper became an avid birdwatcher, and by contrast, a few birdwatchers applied for lighthouse positions so that they could enjoy their hobby.
The night of Peterson's visit, conditions were nearly perfect for birdwatching — no moon and a gentle change from fair to rainy weather was due. With no celestial beacons to guide them, the radiant beams of St. Catherine's Lighthouse became artificial stars in the heavens for the birds traveling over the
"Then we caught sight of our first real night migrant," Tory remembers. "Flickering and ghostly, it darted toward our high catwalk and swept over the top of the tower into the darkness. Soon another came in and another, like moths to a street lamp. During the next two hours there must have been hundreds."
Sometimes, interacting with the birds was just plain fun. Block Island, Rhode Island's Old North Light sits in the midst of a seagull rookery. Barbara Beebe Gaspar, daughter of the lightkeeper in the 1930s, tried to catch the gulls and tame them: "You had to be very sneaky and fast. I caught quite a few. I always let them go, though. I just wanted to cuddle them for awhile." Early 20th century lightkeepers on Block Island donated the bodies of dead birds to a colorful, local character named Mrs. Dickens, who was a bird lover and taxidermist. Her large collection of specimens is now in the care of the local historical society. Many of the little feathered "stiffs" assumed their odd poses after a night of aerial misjudgment around the Southeast Light or the Old North Light.
On the American Eastern Seaboard, there have been numerous documented instances of huge gatherings of birds during the spring and autumn migrations. Some coastal points — Cape Hatteras, Cape Charles, Cape May — regularly see this phenomena, which Tory believes results from cold winds from the northwest pushing migrating birds toward the eastern shores where they experience a kind of avian traffic jam. Alfred Hitchcock's fictional "The Birds" thrilled movie-goers with this theme in the 1960s, but at one lighthouse it was more fact than fiction.
Soon both keepers were firing into the night, then taking aim at individual birds. The feathered raiders persisted, breaking glass and spattering blood. One even pierced the lantern glazing and lodged itself in the delicate prisms of the lens. The onslaught continued for several hours. When the keepers used up their ammunition, they took up clubs, then finally retreated to the base of the tower. Morning revealed the carnage - 68 dead ducks, geese, and brandts.
The men rigged a makeshift screen around the lantern and managed to repair the lens. But two nights later the berserk birds returned and once again battered the tower. Considerable damage was done to the lens this time, and at dawn the keepers counted more than 150 dead birds on the lantern and the ground. No explanation was found for the attack and it remains the worst on record at an American lighthouse.
Far north, at Maine's Boon Island Lighthouse (pictured below), a different sort of assistance was rendered by birds. One Thanksgiving almost a century ago the keepers faced a holiday without family or the traditional fare of turkey and its trimmings, for the weather had not allowed them to row nine miles to shore for supplies and no visit from the lighthouse tender was impending. The keepers sorrowfully concluded that holiday dinner would be potatoes and bread.
But to their surprise, a flock of geese crashed into the 137-foot lighthouse on Thanksgiving Eve. The next day, the aroma of roast goose, slathered with rich gamy gravy, wafted through the lighthouse and proved the perfect complement to potatoes and bread.
Foghorns at lighthouses also could prove tragic for birds. Edward Rowe Snow noted in his Lighthouses of New England that in the non-foggy season birds liked to nest inside the foghorn at Seguin Lighthouse in Maine. The horn was a large trumpet-shaped object that provided a secluded place to incubate eggs. But when active it gave out a deafening HONK!! Every summer when the fog rolled in and the keeper started up the foghorn, the first loud blast hurled the nest and any occupants out of the trumpet and into the air. Below are the large for trumpets at Nash Island Lighthouse in the UK.