Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Fall Migration Has Begun
August 07, 2010
By Steve Grinley

     We are more than a month from Autumn, but the fall migration has certainly begun. It starts with the shorebirds, and they have been filing in with increasing numbers over the past few weeks. Semipalmated, least, white-rumped and stilt sandpipers are feeding on the mudflats and pools on Plum Island and in Newburyport harbor. In their company are greater and lesser yellowlegs, dunlin, short and long-billed dowitchers, black-bellied, semipalmated and piping plovers, Hudsonian and an occasional marbled godwit, and whimbrel.

     In the harbor, it is best to try to see these birds on the ebbing or, preferably, incoming tides. At low tide, the birds are often too far out to see, but the rising tide draws the birds closer to shore for easier viewing. A good rule of thumb is within two hours of low tide, but that is depending on tide heights, etc. During high tide, the pools on Plum Island are the best places to check.

     The passerine, or songbird migration is just beginning. Mass Audubon Joppa Flats has already started banding at their station on the Parker River Refuge to try to catch some early migrants. A few warblers have already been spotted on the refuge.

     The swallows are starting to congregate on Plum Island. They are staging there, feeding and building up their body fat for the long migration ahead. They number in the thousands now, but those numbers will climb to tens of thousands by the time they leave in mid to late August.

     One rare migrant has shown up at Sandy Point on the southern tip of Plum Island – a scissor-tailed flycatcher. This light-colored flycatcher with long, streamer tail feathers probably got caught is some southerly winds and was pushed up from it normal range in the southern United States. This bird has been around for a couple of weeks now, but it has proved to be elusive for those that have tried to see it.

     We went to Sandy Point last Sunday and searched for more than an hour before the flycatcher made an appearance. Tens of birders were there, and it was first spotted as it perched briefly on a short shrub, but that day it spent much of its time in the dune grass, mostly out-of-sight. It would occasionally rise up to do some flycatching, often competing with the tree swallows for flying insects. When the bird did fly, it looked almost totally white against the green grass and background shrubbery. We could see the beautiful salmon color under its wings as it flew. It is a striking bird to watch.

     There are a few piping plover chicks around, although most are quite big by now. There are least terns still nesting at Sandy Point – late for them. This year, we haven’t had storms to affect nesting, but perhaps earlier nests were predated by skunks, raccoons, coyotes or fox, causing the terns to try again.

     If you are watching your feeders carefully, you may have seen parents bringing their “toddlers” along to teach them to partake from your source of food. It is fun to watch the awkward young birds as they try to balance themselves and eat at the same time! Many prefer to just sit and flutter their wings to beg food from the parents. The parents will often just call to them, encouraging their offspring to do it on their own.

     Our goldfinch numbers are down a bit at our feeders as they are still nesting. We have had a few males and a couple of females at the feeder lately. Soon they will bring their young birds to our thistle feeders as well.

     If you have curtailed feeding hummingbirds and orioles for a while, now is a good time to clean out and refill those feeders as those birds are starting to move. We have had a few immature orioles still coming to the grape jelly at the store feeders. Many customers are reporting families of hummingbirds visiting their feeders and you will start seeing more migrants coming through in the coming weeks.

     Grackles and other blackbirds can still be a problem at the feeders during August and early September. Flocks may invade your feeders, but it should only last for a few weeks as they move further south. Besides bird feeders that deter grackles, some folks have luck feeding safflower, as it is not the favorite of most blackbirds. It also helps to put out some corn, away from your regular feeders, to draw the grackles and other blackbirds away, and to give the small birds a better chance.    

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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4 years of service to the birding community! 
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