American White Pelicans wintering near Jacksonville, FL.
By Bruce Stambaugh
Fall is for the birds.
Now, I love autumn, and birding is one of my favorite hobbies. It’s just that bird seasons don’t quite match up with those designed by us humans.
When the calendar flips to August, fall bird migration season has officially begun. It ends come December.
Migration, of course, isn’t confined to only those months. Some shorebirds started their long journeys south in July. Many of them have a long ways to go. For example, pectoral sandpipers nest in the high Arctic tundra and winter throughout South America. Consequently, they need plenty of time to fly those thousands of miles north to south.
The start of migration varies significantly according to the numerous species. Besides shorebirds, different types of birds of prey, songbirds, and waterfowl all migrate.
Yellow-rumped warbler in its duller fall colors.
Those four months are needed to allow all varieties of birds to complete their journeys. Winter in the bird world runs December through February. Spring is March, April, and May. That makes summer the shortest season with just June and July.
It’s not like the birds take notice or even care about months. They behave on natural instincts with recent research indicating that some birds can actually see the earth’s magnetic poles. Stars and the position of the sun in the sky also may motivate our avian friends to embark on their extended trips.
Some birds will migrate only short distances, say from mountainsides to the valleys below. Others migrate medium distances, moving just a few hundred miles south.
Not all birds migrate, however. Some, like American robins, often congregate in flocks once the nesting season is over. Sometimes extreme weather pushes them out of their normal range where they can find the necessary food supply to survive.
Male Eastern Bluebird.
Other birds, like eastern bluebirds, will also group up for both warmth and safety. It’s not unusual in the throes of winter to find several bluebirds huddling for warmth in one bird box.
Fall and spring are the seasons most birders relish. They long for the opportunity to see birds that are only passing through the area. They may just get a glimpse of a rare and endangered bird like a Kirtland’s warbler, a bird that nests in the jack pines of northern Michigan and winters in the Bahamas.
In the spring, birds are in their brightest mating colors. The males are the most colorful. The females tend to be duller for practical reasons. They need to be subtler so as not to attract attention to their nests.
It’s just the opposite in the fall. With the breeding season over, the birds transform into less noticeable color schemes. They need to blend in with their surroundings as best they can to be less conspicuous to predators.
When it comes to living, birds need the same essential elements as the rest of us. Water, food, and habitat are crucial for birds to survive, whether nesting or on the move. Forests, fields, fencerows, dead trees, mudflats, marshes, ponds, and waterways all serve as vital habitat, depending on the bird species.
A barn swallow on its delicate nest in June.
Food is a primary motivator for those that migrate. Swallows and purple martins thrive on insects. That’s why they arrive in the spring and leave when the insect supply diminishes. Of course, they require appropriate shelter, too.
More than half of the 650 species of birds in North America migrate. With migration already underway, it’s why birders everywhere have their binoculars, spotting scopes, and cameras ready for action.
On behalf of birdwatchers everywhere, welcome to fall.
Young birders scope for shorebirds on mudflats.
© Bruce Stambaugh 2018