Migration – more birds

Please consider all the images to be copyrighted and ask permission before using them in any way. Thank you. DEClapp

Migration occurs pretty much everywhere in the world. Wildebeest and zebra move to find fresh grass as they follow the East African rains. As the glaciers receded from the northern hemisphere a few thousand years ago, birds began to fly north to breed and then south to their lands of origin. Fish used the newly open rivers and streams for spawning; and bear, mink, and a dozen other mammals followed them. Forests appeared and birds flooded them; eating the insects that were part of the developing system. Everything changes, nature is not static. There is no balance of nature.

Migrations can be stunningly long like the thousands of miles traveled by the Arctic Tern or the Sooty Shearwater – or the similar distances undertaken by many other sea birds. Tuna, Blue fish, Striped Bass, sea turtles, whales, and even jellyfish all migrate. Migration can be seemingly inappropriate as with the tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird flying hundreds of miles non-stop across the Caribbean. This bird is so small, and so light, that you could mail 7, 8 or 9 of them with a single one ounce stamp. Now I think the United States Postal Service does a great job – but still they choose to fly. The birds I am going to show below all have different stories and all have unique behaviors and patterns. They are barely representative as each creature has its own story.

The late summer and early fall is migration bonanza time. The sandpipers and plovers and other waders have headed south already; with the adults dropping southward in July and August with the breeding season over and their homeland calling. The shorebirds that hatched this year are undertaking their first migration now – August and September and into October. Land birds stay around and feed their young and as the young learn to fly and feed themselves the adults put on weight and the whole gang migrates pretty much at the same time. They are not together really, families drift apart in the nighttime air or on the expansive feeding grounds. Age groups seem to develop loose partnerships. Adults keep out of trouble following rivers and mountains chains, perhaps remembering the wrong turns of their earlier trip. The youngsters wander a bit more and often end up too far east or west or north or south of the intended target. That is what makes fall birding so much fun.

Here in New England we look for central US nesting birds that come our way or birds that migrate quickly north in the spring and are rarely seen, but seem to dawdle on the southward journey. We look for Blue Grosbeaks, Yellow-breasted Chats, Indigo Buntings, Lincoln’s Sparrows, and Dickcissels. There may be Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal and those sea birds that get blown ashore (or near shore at least) by the tropical storms that Africa feeds into the Atlantic this time of year. Then later we will see the signs of winter as the sea ducks begin to arrive.

The featured bird at the top of this blog page is a House Wren; common in much of our region but not so common out here on Cape Cod. It will build a nest of twigs and will maraud nesting boxes and take them over (and evict) Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows. We also have the Carolina Wren around here and there are maybe seven other wrens widely represented throughout the US. (Just a test for me as I write: the other wrens are….Pacific , Cactus, Canyon, Rock, Marsh, Bewick’s, Sedge, and Winter – oops that’s eight more).

As I said, House Wrens will use nest boxes no matter who they are intended for. Many people who put up boxes want Eastern Bluebirds or Tree Swallows to nest in them. In much of the country it will be the House Wren who becomes the ultimate resident; often after chasing out and destroying the eggs of the original homeowner. In most species, including the House Wren, the nest is kept clean by removing fecal sacs. The (altricial) youngsters eliminate waste in a package, this allows the nest to be kept clean and keeps the presence of parasites at a minimum. This wren is taking the “diaper bag” out to be discarded.
Wrens as a group are rather small. The Cactus Wren of the south and west is the exception. Most are brownish and some are gray; tropical wrens use white, reddish brown, stripes, speckles, and patterns to create quite attractive birds with this limited palette. They are busy, noisy, and widespread. Our wrens don’t really haul off and migrate but they do move in the fall to better places to winter. Generally they need dense cover and food. Wrens, like almost all birds, feed their young on protein-rich bugs and worms. But in the winter it is a carbohydrate diet of seeds that gets them through. There are 83 (+ or -) species of wrens and all but one are residents of the Americas; with the greatest number of species in Central America and South America as far south as the southern end of Peru. But the House Wren is very widespread and is found from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. The House Wren is a taxonomic puzzle; some taxonomists have named ten species where others have one species with ten populations/races/forms. The bird nests as far north as northern Canada and as far south as Tierra del Fuego in Chile and Argentina.
This drab little guy may have been raised around around here but the parents are shy and keep the nest out of the public domain. This is an Indigo Bunting; yup it’s clay-colored and not really blueish. The male is strikingly indigo blue and is often seen up on a wire singing its doublets over and over. But the female and the young look like this; clay-colored or brownish. The males will breed their first year with about 80% brown feathers but will molt into the blue plumage by the time they are about16 months old. But they are common in the fall in weedy spots like old field and community gardens. If you look for the Indigo Bunting in with the sparrows or finches based on its bill and general look you will not find it – it is much more closely related to the cardinals.
Another widespread nesting species is the Common Yellowthroat. This is a female and the yellow throat is glaringly obvious. The male sports a black mask over the eyes and face edged with a soft powder blue (gray to some) fringe. These are a pleasant fall find as they brighten up a weedy patch and get a birders heart racing – there are lots of “good” birds that one might see in the fall that are yellow.
This bird is not a Common Yellowthroat though it has a yellow throat and is quite small. It is a vireo – a Philadelphia Vireo. They nest in the eastern two-thirds of North America, mostly along the Canadian border and north. They migrate through most of eastern USA in the fall and are one of the birds that you look for when migrants are around. Like all vireos (I think this is right) they make a small basket-like nest that hangs from a forked branch, a thin forked branch that is. Vireos used to appear on the check-list next to warblers but DNA comparison has them more closely related to the flycatchers, shrikes, and crows and they now precede the warblers greatly on the modern taxonomic check-list.
Some day I’ll do sparrows. They are brownish as a rule but have nice patterns and surprising color (on occasion). This one with yellow lores (find them?) is the very widespread Savannah Sparrow. This species nest throughout Canada and much of the USA. Most of them will winter in the southern US and Mexico with a few going further south. Sparrows are often described by characteristics; neat, water-colory, with a breast spot, clear belly, striped, buffy, crowned and so on. But for the most part they are brown and streaked. Yet, after a while they take on a personality and have bit of style. Some are bold looking others are tightly patterned. Some skulk others are easy to find. The Savannah is small-headed, streaked, with the yellow feathering between the bill and the eye (the lores).
Some of our fall migrants are birds of the year. Just a few months old and on their own. They are exploring the world whether they mean to or not. This is a picture of a young Dickcissel. They breed commonly in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa, and western Nebraska. They breed sparsely pretty much all over the eastern half of the US excepting New England, most of New York state, and the very southeastern corner. We get them there on Cape Cod as off-course fall migrants annually and they are a treat to locate. The young are plain and lightly striped in front, the females are often pale yellowish and the males often have some black in the throat and a brighter yellow breast. We look for them in thickets and weedy patches.
This is another Dickcissel, likely a female, sitting on Mugwort in a weedy place in the local community gardens. Gardens will produce annual plants (weeds). Perennials are selfish and feed their roots; annuals are looking to the future and make lots of seeds for their next year. Birds and small mammals like the annual plants’ way of life. Managing a patch for migrant buntings, Bobolink, sparrows, and Dickcissel is as easy as tilling soil in early May and waiting.

So, there is a quick review of the past week or so. I know I have a couple more posts from the Falklands to do and a whole bunch of African herbivores – but I am sure that there will be a few interruptions and some good stuff to pass along. For instance I had several Garter Snakes this week and the last summer days still draw out the Painted Turtles. We still have lots of dragonflies around though many have already migrated away – yes many dragonflies migrate .

Thanks – enjoy our natural world (and work to protect it) …. it is under great pressure!

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