I was sitting on the porch last Sunday, trying to think of a topic for today’s column. Alas, it was too distracting. Overhead, a black-throated green warbler was calling. Then another. Then another.
Wait-a-minute! I’m right in the middle of a fall-out!
I went to bed the previous evening with a strong breeze from the northwest. When I awoke the next morning, my yard was awash with warblers. These birds had been migrating overnight, taking advantage of the favorable winds. Most likely, they had come down from Canada. At dawn, they landed to rest and feed.
I walked a mile down the road. Many more black-throated green warblers were foraging among the leaves. I encountered a flock of northern parulas, our smallest warbler. A few black-and-white warblers were mixed in. Periodically, I’d find a few blue-headed vireos and an occasional ruby-crowned kinglet. A juvenile yellow-bellied sapsucker popped into a nearby tree. And everywhere I went, I could hear yellow-rumped warblers calling.
Large birds migrate by day, but most songbirds migrate at night. They appreciate the chillier nighttime temperatures that cool their exertions. More importantly, predators can’t see them in the dark. At dawn, the songbirds settle down wherever they happen to be. That can get complicated. If they’re over water or a city, they have to find trees and cover. With the advantage of their bird’s eye view, they can spot favorable sites at a distance, and many birds head for those specific spots.
That’s what happens at my house. I live on a lake. The outlet stream runs just beyond my house. At daybreak, migrants look down from above, see the lake and the river, and decide my shoreline looks like a good place to spend the day.
Some places are famous for their fall-outs. In spring, High Island, Texas, is the first place that northbound songbirds make landfall after crossing the Gulf of Mexico. Point Pelee, Ontario, sticks out like a thumb from the north shore of Lake Erie, drawing spring migrants like a magnet. Tawas Point has the same effect on Lake Michigan. Magee Marsh in Ohio has an annual fall-out so huge that it is now home to one of the biggest birding festivals on the continent — aptly named “The Biggest Week in American Birding.”
Closer to home, some of our offshore islands become migrant traps in spring and fall. Monhegan is particularly famous. Cemeteries in urban areas look like an inviting patch of green to songbirds that need to touch down at daybreak.
Tiny fall-outs likely happen near you, or perhaps even in your own backyard. In fact, with the current weather pattern, this morning might be a good time to take the newspaper out on the porch and listen. In breeding season, birds are territorial and won’t let competitors near them. But in autumn, they tend to flock up together for safety. This behavior requires constant communication to keep the flock together, and there is a good deal of chatter happening in the treetops.
Indeed, that’s the best thing about birding in migration season. You can do it by accident. While planting daffodil bulbs or strolling the neighborhood, just keep binoculars handy and ears open. I’d wager that 90 percent of people simply don’t notice the little sounds around them, especially those just above their heads.
However, if warbler-watching fails, enjoy the next incursion that follows swiftly on their heels. Sparrows are now forming flocks. These flocks are much more noticeable because the birds feed on the ground and swarm bushes. They also group together for safety, and since all of Maine has gone to seed by now, they don’t have to fight over the abundant food supply.
Most of these sparrows are common Maine breeders. Song and white-throated sparrows are most likely. Dark-eyed juncos are in the sparrow family, and they are currently teeming along the roadsides. But there can be some oddballs in those flocks, and that makes it a treasure hunt. White-crowned sparrows resemble white-throated sparrows, but their crowns are dramatically striped. They summer in Labrador and Newfoundland, and winter throughout the southern United States. They are passing through Maine right this minute.
Clay-colored sparrows breed across much of the Central Time Zone, and up to the eastern edge of the Rockies. Lark sparrows share much of that territory, and range even farther west. A few of both species wander into Maine each autumn. Birding this time of year is just a matter of watching and listening.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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