Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Migrant Birds Arriving at Backyard Feeders
September 24, 2016
By Steve Grinley

     My past few columns have talked about birding in the field and some unusual birds that were found along the way. This great weather that we have been having certainly encourages us to get out and enjoy the natural resources that we have around us. If you are thinking about heading to the refuge on Plum Island, or your favorite “patch” near your home to see some birds, there are still shorebirds and songbirds moving through on their way south.

     But what is happening in the backyard these days? Most of the orioles have left, and many of the male hummingbirds. A few female and juvenile hummers are lingering, but most will be gone, and the remaining migrants should pass through by the end of September. Occasionally a few strays show up at nectar feeders past October and they should be checked carefully, as they could be a different species from our ruby-throated hummingbird. Be sure to let us know at the store and we’ll be sure that your sighting is documented. You should keep your nectar feeders up at least another couple of weeks to catch any ruby-throats moving through on their way to Central of South America!.

     The male goldfinches are losing their bright yellow and black coloration and will soon be an olive green, like the females. There seem to be more finches around now than there were a month or two ago, so you’ll want to offer them thistle seed or sunflower seed to keep them around all fall and winter. If you do put out thistle, keep an eye out for migrating indigo buntings the next couple of weeks. Males are a stunning indigo blue, but the females and young are a light brown, and, at quick glance, easily confused with a female house sparrows.

     Speaking of sparrows, it is a good time to carefully check over those sparrows that are at your millet or mixed seed feeders. I know that we think of sparrows as “little brown jobs” and they are challenging to tell apart, but fall is the time when more unusual birds show up with them. We have had both dickcissels and clay-colored sparrows more than once at our feeders here at the store. The clay-colored sparrows are smaller, paler and have a striped head, with a light stripe through the crown. The dickcissel is more similar to a house sparrow, but often has varying amounts of yellow on its chest. Also moving through and visiting feeders soon will be white-throated sparrows and, those early “harbingers of winter,” juncos! These birds feed on millet and mixed seed on the ground under your feeders, but they will often feed on a tray or other mixed seed feeder. Juncos will even occasionally feed on thistle.

     Red-breasted nuthatches are migrating through our area now. These birds are a bit smaller than our resident white-breasted nuthatch and a bit cuter, or at least I think so. They have a deeper blue back, more red underneath, and a dark line through the eye. Their call sounds like a “baby” nuthatch. They will come to sunflower feeders and also to suet, doing the same upside down routine as their larger cousins. Many folks will be glad to see the grackles leave soon, if they haven’t already, but many of our summer birds actually stay year round. Cardinals, chickadees, titmice, fiches and woodpeckers will all visit your seed feeders and suet throughout the autumn and winter.

     If you haven’t started your fall bird feeding yet, now, with cooler weather approaching, is a good time to set up your feeding stations. Put out seed and suet for these resident birds, as well for the migrating birds that are already moving through. With all the dry weather that we have been having, also be sure to keep fresh water available for the birds. Many migrants will stop for a drink, and you are likely to see birds at your bird baths that don’t come to your feeders. Not all birds eat seed, but most need water. If you are worried about mosquitoes, and you should until the first hard frost, replace the water in your bird bath daily. Alternatively, you can add a dripper, recirculating rock or other device to keep water moving. As the colder weather approaches, you might also think about a heater for the bird bath, as birds especially need fresh water when all natural sources become frozen. I know, autumn has just begun, but you know New England weather. Best to be prepared!

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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