It’s that time of year. The leaves are beautiful, but falling. The frost on the prairie grass sparkles in the morning, but the flowers have faded away. And the migratory birds come in waves, but quickly move on, not to be seen in these parts for another seven months: The sweet with the bitter. But that’s what makes our lives here in the Northland more poignant; the contrast between seasons, the opportunity to anticipate the next change, and learning how to say goodbye to the things we love.
In the autumn migration we have seen both the little and big birds moving through. A week ago, there were two days when we were the epicenter of a warbler ‘wave’. This is not a group of little birds standing around and waving their wings at us, but rather a cluster of small songbirds that descend en masse to feed. This can happen in the spring time too, when they are brightly colored and easy to distinguish one from another. In the fall, when this happens, we struggle to identify what species are in the flock, because they are all sporting their drab winter plumage. Sometimes, among birders, they are described as “confusing fall warblers”.
While sitting in bed on one of these mornings, I noticed more activity in the pine tree outside our window. Small birds would land on a branch and quickly fly downwards and disappear from view. Since there has been so little bird activity in recent weeks, I knew something was up. I went downstairs and looked out the front windows and saw a flurry of bird activity beyond our deck in the maple and pine trees. By their size and activity level, I knew they had to be warblers and I called to Mike to ‘quick come see’. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker climbing up the trunk of our silver maple confirmed that this was a mixed flock, with a variety of species, all in the process of heading south.
Mike went out to the deck with his binoculars and sat in a chair with his feet propped up on the railing and was entertained for the next half hour. He saw Yellow-Rumped Warblers – some of the earliest to arrive in the spring and the last to leave in the fall – as well as Palm Warblers. The birds were not at all fazed by his presence, so engrossed were they in their feeding frenzy. A good supply of insects in and around the leaves of the trees kept them busy. Warblers are mainly insect eaters and during migration they need to constantly replenish their fat supply, in order to cover the thousands of miles they will travel. We can help by putting out some suet during the daytime hours, since this is a concentrated (and easy) source of energy.
All this activity stirred up the local Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches who became very vocal and active, coming down to the birdfeeders filled with black sunflower seed, as if to let the interlopers know this was THEIR territory. Before long the crowd dispersed and once again the yard was quiet and empty.
In the next month, the bears and raccoons should seek out winter dens and then we can once again confidently fill our birdfeeders and leave them out overnight. We will get the suet feeders set up too and wait for the blue jays, woodpeckers, and all our other hardy northern species to fill the gap left by the birds of summer.