Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Time to Look for Vagrants at Bird Feeders
September 6, 2008
Steve Grinley

     As we move into September and the autumn season, it is time to look for the unusual in the bird world. Fall is the time when vagrants, birds that show up outside of their normal range, often show up in Massachusetts. Many of these vagrants show up in local neighborhoods and, sometimes, at bird feeders. Many of these vagrants are first year birds that migrate off course, for what ever reason.

     A dickcissel has already made an appearance at a backyard feeder in Essex. This bird looks similar to the house sparrows with which it associates but has varying amounts of yellow on its breast, depending on its age and sex. A dickcissel is a grassland bird of the Midwest, and has become a frequent fall visitor to our area. We have had one several times at the store feeders over the years. I also had a report of a possible dickcissel at the brush dump in Newburyport a couple of weeks ago.

     The house sparrows at your feeders could be a nuisance, but check them carefully for something different. In addition to dickcissels, other vagrants may be mixed in. Look for clay-colored and Harris’s sparrow which have been seen in our area in recent years. Golden-crowned sparrow is also a possibility.

     Feeding birds in the fall can be exciting and it helps summer residents buildup their body fat in preparation for their journey south. It also helps migrating birds refuel on their way through. Maintaining sunflower, mixed seed, thistle and suet feeders will provide the necessary fuel for these birds.

     Other unusual feeder birds to look for include yellow-headed blackbirds in the mixed flocks of blackbirds that may stop by. Black-headed grosbeaks and western tanagers are a possibility at sunflower feeders. An off-course western tanager spent some winter days in Merrimac last year, and it is an infrequent fall visitor.

     Many of the local orioles have started to migrate, however, you may want to keep your oriole feeder up through September for any orioles migrating through from further north. A little jelly fix, and sometimes suet, helps them to continue on their journey. Be sure to check those orioles that stop for another vagrant, Bullock’s oriole. Once considered the same species as a Baltimore oriole (northern oriole), it is now considered a different species and does rarely show up in Massachusetts.

     Now is also an important time to maintain your hummingbird feeders. Our local birds are building up their fat reserves for migration, migrants will be stopping by on their way through, and vagrant hummingbirds are becoming a more frequent occurrence. Keep your hummingbird feeder up through September, and October if you can.

     Any hummingbird visiting this time of year should be studied carefully in case it could be something other than our regular ruby-throated hummingbirds. This is especially true as we move later into the season. Many western species are showing up at Massachusetts feeders with increasing frequency in the fall.

     You may have seen news stories about the broad-billed hummingbird that is currently visiting a feeding in Dennis on the Cape. This is a first state record for this species. Rufous and Allen’s type hummingbirds have been more regularly occurring in autumn in Massachusetts. These birds have a more rusty coloration and may be more obvious to recognize as different. Calliope hummingbirds have also shown up in the state, so check those hummers carefully this season!

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