Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Check for Vagrants at Feeders
September 08, 2018
by Steve Grinley

     As we move into September and the fall season, it is time to look for the unusual in the bird world. Autumn 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, or even in a different direction than their species normally do.

     A dickcissel has already made an appearance at a backyard feeder in Essex. A dickcissel looks similar to the house sparrows with which it associates, but it 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.

     The house sparrows at your feeders can be a nuisance, but check them carefully for something different. In addition to dickcissels, other vagrants may be mixed in. Look for a clay-colored or a Harris’s sparrow, each of which have been seen in our area in recent years. Even a golden-crowned sparrow, from the western United States, has visited feeders I Massachusetts.

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

     Often times large flocks of blackbirds will descend on your feeders on their way south in the fall. Though they may also be a temporary nuisance, look closely through the usual grackles, red-winged blackbirds and cowbirds for a yellow-headed blackbird. Adults have all yellow heads, but females and young birds may only have yellow on their face and chest.

     Black-headed grosbeaks and western tanagers are possible vagrants that may appear at sunflower feeders. Off-course western tanagers have visited feeders in Merrimac and Rowley in years past.

     Many of the local orioles have migrated, however, you may want to keep your oriole feeder up through September for any orioles that may stop on their way south 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 – a Bullock’s oriole. Once considered the same species as a Baltimore oriole (then northern oriole), it is now considered a different species and does occasionally show up in Massachusetts.

     It is also important time to maintain your hummingbird feeders for the next few weeks. Some of our local birds are still building up their fat reserves for migration, and migrants will be stopping by on their way through. Vagrant hummingbirds are becoming a more frequent occurrence, especially later in the fall.

     If you keep your hummingbird feeder up through September and into October, be sure to scrutinize any visitors for they could be something other than our regular ruby-throated hummingbirds. This becomes more important as we move later into the season. Many western species are showing up at Massachusetts feeders with increasing frequency in the late fall.

     A broad-billed hummingbird visited a feeder in Dennis on the Cape some years back. Rufous and Allen’s type hummingbirds have been the more “regularly” vagrants in autumn in Massachusetts. These birds have a more rusty coloration and, therefore, may be more obvious to recognize as different. These hummingbirds have shown up in Byfield and Essex in recent years. So check those hummers carefully this season, along with all the other birds visiting your seed feeders. You never know what you may find!

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