Good conditions for migration may promote offshore flights in nocturnal autumn migrants at the northern border of the Mediterranean Sea, whereas unfavourable conditions may induce flights along the coast. These predictions were tested by performing orientation cage experiments and making simultaneous observations of free-flying birds using a tracking radar. The flight directions of free-flying birds were mainly towards southwest and did not differ between overcast and clear sky conditions. The caged birds, however, tended towards southwest under clear sky and showed a more scattered distribution in the southwest and southeast quadrants under overcast conditions. Similar directional scatter occurred when the cage experiments were performed late at night. In contrast, free-flying birds shifted their flight direction towards west as night progressed to avoid flights across the sea. Flight directions observed by radar shifted slightly towards west as the season progressed owing to more frequent southeasterly winds. In orientation cages, however, directional preference was scattered towards southwest and southeast in the early migratory season and became unimodal (southwest) at the peak of the season; this change was not caused by different species composition. Consequently, there is a general coincidence of flight directions and directional preferences in orientation cages, but interpretations of results from orientation cages must allow for the possibility that experimental directions are different from migratory directions of free-flying birds, particularly under suboptimal migratory conditions.

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