Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Fallouts of Migrant Birds Amazes Birders
May 05, 2012

By Steve Grinley

     I put out our oriole feeder this week, as I am hopeful that it will be a matter of days when our orioles will show up. A few have been reported in the area, and hummingbirds are visiting feeders south and west of Boston. So if you haven’t put up your oriole and hummingbird feeders yet, now is the time. Before I left for Florida in mid-April we were experiencing warm, southerly winds that brought in some early migrants. I thought, for sure, that the hummingbirds and orioles would be here when I got back. But, while I was away, the latter half of April brought winds from Canada – not conducive to spring migration. We saw orioles and hummingbirds in Florida, so we thought that they, and many of the warblers, would already be here. Such is not the case.

     Warming winds this coming week should bring more migrants to us. They certainly are making it Florida. We experienced a mini-fallout of birds of birds two weeks ago at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park on Key West. We were supposed to go out to the Dry Tortugas that day, but high winds and rain cancelled the boat. But the weather front that cancelled the boat caused many migrants to drop into the park that day.

     We suspected that the birding was going to be good as we drove through the access streets of Key West to the park and saw large numbers of palm warblers and common yellowthroats hopping on the ground and in shrubs and gardens along the way. When we finally entered the park, and despite the showery weather, birds were everywhere we looked! Orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, hummingbirds, indigo buntings, gray flycatchers, vireos, sparrows and hundreds of warblers were feeding in the trees, shrubs and all over the ground! Ovenbirds and water thrushes were walking out in the open, more of either species than I have ever seen at one time. It was hard to know where to look next. Folks were calling out birds from all directions and we would have to decide which species we were most interested in.

     After an exhausting couple of hours in the mist and drizzle, the heavens opened up again and another tropical downpour was upon us. It was nearing lunchtime, so we tore ourselves away and went to get some lunch. But we weren’t prepared for what we encountered upon our return.

     The last band of rain brought in even more birds! We started birding in a different area of the park that had some tall pines and little vegetation below. There was a carpet of palm warblers and common yellowthroats blanketing the ground. There had to be thousands. Among them were tens, if not hundreds, of ovenbirds and water thrushes now. It the trees, Margo spotted a male hooded warbler and I came across a female hooded. There were also at least four yellow-billed cuckoos in the trees along with redstarts, prairie, black-throated green, black-throated blue, and parula warblers.

     Then I had the great fortune of spying a Swainson’s warbler on the ground among the palm warblers, ovenbirds and water thrushes. This is usually a secretive bird of the swamps in the south – more often heard than seen. But here it was, out in the open on the ground, turning over leaves in search of insects. We set up a scope and watched this bird for some time, a life bird for some people, and the best look that I have ever had. If that wasn’t enough, as I was watching the Swainson’s in the scope, a worm-eating warbler came into the same field of view. This was another life bird for some and, again, one of the best looks that I have had of this bird that spends most of it time hidden in the canopy layer of trees in our area.

     I have encountered fallouts here in New England a couple of times and by New England standards, this surpassed all that I have experienced before. One different dimension was that while we enjoy all these birds singing by the time they reach New England, they were mostly silent at Fort Taylor that day. They were too busy eating, and still a thousand miles from their breeding grounds, so I guess they have no reason to sing. Still it is a dimension of birding that I enjoy here at home.

     Despite the numbers of birds that we saw, the locals called this a mini-fallout and it wasn’t until this past week when I read a post on the Florida Rare Birds Alert by Morgan Tingley, formerly of New Hampshire. His experience dwarfed ours, as he had a fallout that is the stuff that dreams are made of:

     “It was truly an impressive array of migrants. We arrived at Fort Zach at 10:30 am and stayed until 12 noon when the rain picked up again (and remains strong). In total, we estimated around 30K-50K migrants (warblers, almost entirely) had been dumped into the park. Carl [Goodrich, of Cape Cod] estimated 75,000. It’s very difficult to say. This was based on counting birds per minute flitting past. Black-throated Blues were the most abundant (~20K estimated). At one point I had around 100 sitting on a dirt path in front of me, and they were constantly moving through, along with redstarts (~5000), ovenbirds (~3000), Black-and-whites (~3000), yellowthroats (~2000), catbirds (~2000), and amazingly (to me), yellow-billed cuckoos (easily 500, maybe over 1000). Grassy areas had western palms (~3000).

     Other warblers were around in smaller numbers: Cape May (10 seen), B-t-green (1), Parula (5), Hooded (1), Worm-eating (2), Northern Waterthrush (3), Blackpoll (80), and … 1 Swainson’s. No orioles or tanagers or grosbeaks that we saw, and only a few indigo buntings (down from several days ago). Carl also alerted us to two Chuck-wills-widows that were competing with an osprey, tricolored herons and about 50 cuckoos for roosting space in a tiny grove of trees by the bathhouse. It was truly impressive.”

     Very impressive indeed, Morgan! Maybe next time for us.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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