Thursday, October 2, 2014

Lighthouse Visitors on the Wing

Lured from far,

The bewildered seagull beats

Dully against the lantern...

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Light-Keeper II

Engraving from All Among the Lighthouses. Author's collection.

The birds are beginning to move on their autumn migrations. In Rhode Island last week, I saw great congregations of them in trees and winging over Narragansett Bay. Here in the Pacific NW, they're feeding and gathering in large groups in preparation for long flights to warmer climes. All this bird activity makes me think of lighthouses...

Certain lighthouses, because of their location along the great migratory routes, attract birds. These include the tall, bright sentinels at Fire Island, Cape May, and Assateague. All three lie along the great Atlantic Flyway — the Eastern Seaboard's busy, feathered freeway. A number of Great Lakes lighthouses and those of the Northwest states and British Columbia witness great waves of birds migrating between the tropics and Canada, and most of Britain's lighthouses stand along the busy migration routes to and from Africa. In fact, there are lighthouses all over the globe that witness bird migrations.

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:

The majority are relying in a large part on the visible night sky to aid navigation and on light, particularly from the moon, illuminating the landscape. If bad weather descends whilst they are on the move they use other features to orientate themselves. The beams of Bardsey Lighthouse, which officially reach up to 43km out to sea, are particularly attractive if other navigational cues are absent. Up to 31,573 birds have descended upon the Lighthouse in a single night. Sadly some of these birds fatally collide with the light, typically Manx Shearwaters and thrushes, but also species such as Thrush Nightingale and Red-eyed Vireo. We are based at the light to monitor these attractions, help to direct birds away from the tower using gantry lights and catch grounded birds to stop them again flying at the light.

So great is the bird problem at some lighthouses, screens have been installed around the lanterns to protect the windows and lenses, and bird spikes are mounted on the top of the cupolas to discourage birds from perching and fouling the ventilation openings. Keepers of yesterday spent much of their time cleaning the outside glazing and scrubbing the gallery decks and railings. At stations where rainwater was caught on the roof and drained into a cistern, birds were sometimes even a menace to health.

Pictured is Fenwick Island Lighthouse, Delaware, with a bird screen around the lantern. Photo from

Haaks Light in Den Helder, Holland looks like it's wearing a crown. The crown is actually a ring of bird spikes to discourage feathered visitors.
A modern beacon on the coast of Maine shows the mess birds can make of navigation lights. Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.
Long Island's Shinnecock Lighthouse had chicken wire wrapped about the lantern to protect the glazing, but huge flocks still pelted the tower during migrations, often snagging in the wire screen. So many were killed that the keepers dug a trench around the lighthouse to make disposal of the dead bodies easier. The problem appeared to be solved until hunters invaded the station, lured by the prospect of easy targets. The government was forced to declare the area a wildlife refuge to protect the lightkeepers!

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 lighthouses.

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."

New Zealand's Arakoa Lighthouse had several families of blue penguins living under the porch of the lightkeeper's house each winter during the 1940s, when T.A. Clark and his Maori wife, Meri, kept the light. A perceptive amateur naturalist, Meri Clark noted that the little warm-blooded creatures were seeking the warmth of the brick chimney foundation. The cries of the penguins, which the family likened to those of unhappy children, forecast the arrival of storms with incredible accuracy.

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.
This was certainly true of Norman McCanch, a British lightkeeper who served in the mid-1970s. He had been interested in birds since his childhood on the Welsh coast and later the shores of Pembrokeshire. Trained as a taxidermist and passionately interested in birds, he joined the ranks of Trinity House and spent three years at various light stations. His experiences as lightkeeper, birdwatcher, and artist resulted in the 1985 publication of A Lighthouse Notebook, a handsomely illustrated personal journal dedicated to the winged traffic at the massive towers of Coquet, Cromer, St. Mary's, South Bishop, and Longships.

McCanch's deft pen and paintbrush perceptively captured the avian world of the lighthouse keeper: "Then, without warning, a small, brilliantly-lit shape dances momentarily in the beams of the light and is gone. Gradually another appears, and a couple more, until perhaps twenty or thirty small warblers and chats are flickering in the dazzling light. Unable to pinpoint any other landmark in the drizzle and mist, they fly towards the light, circling in its beams until exhaustion or daybreak frees them."
McCanch was licensed to ring birds, thus his detailed journals on their populations, physical conditions, and movements provided valuable data for British researchers and wildlife managers. He often caught birds in special nets as they flew near the brilliant lantern at night. Birds that collided with the tower and survived were nursed back to health and set free.

A one-legged, sickly herring gull was befriended after it awoke from a slam into South Bishop Rock Light. McCanch and his comrades hand fed the scruffy outcast and grew quite fond of it. Though the gull was eventually returned to the wild, it often came back to visit the keepers. Most birds that collided with the towers did not fare as well. Those that were merely stunned recovered quickly and flew off, but injuries were usually fatal. McCanch used dead birds for dissection or taxidermy.

The late and noted bird expert Roger Tory Peterson has never been a lighthouse keeper, but in an article for Smithsonian Magazine he admitted: "For years I had wanted to spend a night in a lighthouse when the birds were flying; to see the small travelers pouring out of the darkness into the dazzling beams." Peterson got his wish in April 1952 when he and fellow birders, Guy Mountfort and Keith Shackleton, received permission from Trinity House to visit St. Catherine's Lighthouse in the English Channel.

St. Catherine's, pictured below, is a lonely sentinel on a prominent headland of the Isle of Wight. At the time of Peterson's visit, the beacon was about 6,000,000 candlepower and a great enticement for weary migrating birds. In its earlier years, when the beams were nearly three times as brilliant, the keepers recorded enormous loss of birds, as if they were lured to their deaths against the light by some invisible force.


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 English Channel. Near midnight, a fine, misty rain began to fall, and the local foghorn commenced moaning its warning to sailors.

"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."
Tory believed the birds were navigating across the 75-mile channel by a kind of avian dead reckoning — knowing direction and speed. The lighthouse may have temporarily suspended their direction-finding ability and caused them to veer off course and behave erratically, or it could have been a known landmark on their route north. Either way, it's likely the birds would fly near the tower and perhaps even land for the night.

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.
Hog Island Light along the barrier islands of Virginia was attacked by birds in 1900. The tower, shown above, was built in 1896 to replace an earlier stone tower. It was an iron pile design meant to allow wind and water, and perhaps even birds, to pass through it unobstructed, and also to anchor it more firmly in the erosive sands of the island. The two keepers of the lighthouse were not surprised when a flock of birds collided with the lantern around 8:00 PM that February night in 1900, for this was a rather common event at the lighthouse, which was situated in the busy Atlantic Flyway. It seemed a few weeks early for such accidents though. When the birds did not immediately depart, one of the men climbed to the lantern and fired a shot into the darkness to frighten them away. It seemed only to increase the frenzy, so more shots were fired.

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.
A lighter side to birdwatching at lighthouses can be found in the logbooks of Florida lightkeepers stationed aboard the wave-swept sentinels along the Florida Reef. Atop the keeper's quarters at many of the Reef Lights were lofts for carrier pigeons, which were used to communicate with shore before the advent of radio transmission. The gentle, cooing doves were much-loved and reliable messengers. If a ship in distress was sighted or the lighthouse crew needed help, pigeons were the quickest emergency couriers.

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.
Parts of this article originally appeared in Lighthouse Digest, December 1995.

© Elinor De Wire, 1995


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