Weird things happen this time of year. For much of September, bird migration is a rather predictable event. Warblers flow out, finches flow in. Hawks flow out, sea ducks flow in. Hummingbirds, shorebirds and a variety of songbirds flow out, etc.
But then comes October. Sparrows start moving southward, in no particular hurry. Seed-eaters can take their time. Chickadees and nuthatches adjust for winter, some wandering south, some staying put and hiding food. Some birds of the western states wander eastward when they mean to go south. Accidents happen.
You can see some of this transition happening in your own backyard. But for a little extra adventure, I ventured up to Katahdin Woods and Waters last weekend to get the full effect. My first observation is that the wisdom of social distancing has encouraged Mainers to embrace their outdoor heritage. Whenever I venture into the woods these days, I’m finding more Mainers on the backroads, just enjoying the ride and the views. In the case of KWW, I’m also seeing a lot of distant vagabonds joining the fun. There were cars from Maryland, Texas and Washington riding the loop road in the national monument. All of the campers were from away.
Most warblers have fled the woods, with the exception of abundant yellow-rumped warblers. They are Maine’s hardiest nesting warblers, and don’t go very far south for the winter. They are first to arrive in the spring and the last to leave. Frankly, they’re probably around your own yard right now. If you see a warbler, look for that distinctive yellow butt.
Other late migrants in KWW included blue-headed vireos, calling often and singing sporadically. Many of them won’t go any farther than North Carolina for the winter. Some of the lingering ruby-crowned kinglets won’t go any farther than New Jersey. As a rule, the short-distance migrants stay the longest.
If there is one October bird that stumps many people, it’s the immature white-crowned sparrow. The adult has a zebra-striped head that’s reminiscent of a football referee’s jersey. But the youngster’s crown is brown, bisected by a grayish band. They just don’t look much like their parents. Furthermore, white-crowned sparrows don’t nest in Maine. They are prolific breeders throughout northern Canada. Since they winter across the southern states, they pass through Maine in big numbers, confusing birders everywhere they go.
Lark sparrows are another tricky visitor. They are widespread across most western states, nesting as far east as Ohio. But not here. However, a handful pop into Maine each autumn. One was in the company of several chipping sparrows at the Lunksoos boat launch on the East Branch of the Penobscot River last weekend. Its white outer tail feathers gave it away, as did its face, which I will merely describe as “spooky-looking.”
Dark-eyed juncos are also in the sparrow family with white outer tail feathers. These slate-colored birds breed widely across Maine. In KWW, they were everywhere, milling around, counting the minutes until they wander south, and show up at your house. Give them about two weeks before they swarm suburban roadsides and back yards. Some will winter over in Maine. The rest will spread out across the remainder of the country.
I suspect it’ll be a good finch winter. I heard red crossbills, pine siskins and even a handful of evening grosbeaks flying around as I walked the brand-new Deasey Pond trail.
Two immature yellow-bellied sapsuckers and a few northern flickers proved that not all had flown south yet. Maine’s other woodpeckers are all year-round residents, and they were actively gathering and storing food. Likewise, the blue jays were particularly industrious. They are champion food-stashers, hiding meals in caches for consumption later in winter. Sometimes, they sense a bad winter coming, and bunches will leave the state. The fact that so many were staying put and caching food tells me they think it won’t be a terrible winter. You heard it here first.
Perhaps the best treat came on Sunday night. I happened to be outside at 8:30 p.m. when I heard a barred owl sound off. And then another. And another. The hoots came from all four corners of the forest. From the west, it sounded like a pair answering together, so perhaps there were five owls in all. The hootenanny lasted for about five minutes, with the northernmost owl the last to go quiet again. They were merely announcing their presence to each other, in order to avoid stumbling into a territorial conflict. It turns out that barred owls are experts at social distancing.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.