Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Confusing Fall Migrants Challenge Birders
August 30, 2008
Last week, I wrote about the large numbers of shorebirds, egrets and swallows that were staging and migrating through the Newburyport area. As these birds continue to move on, and their numbers start to dwindle, we begin to experience the movement of more passerines, or songbirds, through our area. The flycatchers, vireos, wrens, warblers, orioles, and tanagers migrate through, from mid August to October, and their numbers will peak by mid to late September.
These songbirds are now donning non-breeding and juvenile plumage and, coupled with the density of the foliage in which they forage, this makes finding and identifying these birds more difficult at this time of year. Absent, for the most part, are their songs, which we enjoy during spring migration, and could otherwise aid identification.
Thus, identifying birds in fall migration can be most challenging and confusing to birders, yet it can be rewarding as well. Doug Chickering of Groveland shares with us some of those rewards and frustration:
“Today was a perfect mid September day, grafted to the end of August. I was on Plum Island just before dawn. it was autumn cold; sweater and gloves cold, but when the sun rose the day warmed up quickly. The whole tone of the day seemed September. The sky was still filled with tree swallows; the pre migration crescendo just past its peak. The shorebirds were foraging in all their old familiar places. The dowitcher numbers were diminishing and the semipalmated sandpiper girths were increasing. We are now entering into that special seasonal phase; the fall passerines are filtering in.
“Fall is so different than spring. The trees and brush are heavy with a summer of growth; thick in foliage dripping with fruit. The birds are nearly silent; chipping and squeaking and occasionally singing wane, brief renditions of their spring chorus. We find them as tugs in the foliage, quick flights across the pathways and the movement of shadows over the dappled forest floor. They always seem to stop in the trees where they can put themselves directly between you and the sun and become just silhouette’s in the glare, and they have the uncanny knack of flying into a sparse tree then vanishing into the ether.
“Today was August on the calendar but mid September in it’s feel. I walked along the road between the Parking lot entrance and the cross walk at Hellcat on Plum Island. It was lively. The movement and the forms at the edge of the road or in the trees were mostly robins and catbirds and chickadee’s, but with each flicker of movement there was the possibility of a special prize.
“Hard and disappointing and rewarding it was – a typical autumn bushwhack. Among the regulars and the expected birds I found my rewards. A Canada warbler, a blackburnian [warbler], black-throated blue [warbler], black-and-white [warbler], yellow-bellied flycatcher, great-crested flycatcher, red-eyed vireo and the most satisfying reward: two Philadelphia vireo’s.
“And, so like the autumn, there were the one’s that got away. A bird flew over my head and into a tree; yellow belly, warbler sized . I followed it into the tree and, apparently into another dimension. No movement of branch of leaf; it simply disappeared.
“Two small birds flew into a branch about ten feet over my head; one landed out of sight, the other perched in the open. A sparrow. Rufous cap and pink bill and plain, scruffy gray body. Then, flick and it was gone. A chipping sparrow? Not with an orange bill. A field sparrow? With a completely featureless gray body? It is difficult in these moments not to reach out; especially for a rarity; to just let it go. Sparrow species.
“Such is birding in the fall. And today was just a start to the triumph and the frustration. A spicy delicious combination.”
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