The wind howled last Saturday. By dusk, it had slowed to a more reasonable breeze from the northwest — ideal for bird migration. Sunday was warm. The porch was inviting. I parked my caboose on the Adirondack chair for a morning cup of coffee, mildly curious about what might have flown in overnight. Shortly thereafter, the trees over my house came alive.
Ruby-crowned kinglets were everywhere. I counted 32. Some might have been warblers, since I did note a black-throated green warbler, a northern parula and a black-and-white warbler in the mix. A blue-headed vireo foraged in the nearest tree.
One strange warbler probed for insects in the low bushes. It took a while to figure out it was a blackpoll. Roger Tory Peterson, famed pioneer ornithologist, coined the term “confusing fall warblers,” and dedicated several pages of his landmark 1934 book “Field Guide to Birds” to help people figure them out.
Most warblers aren’t that confusing. Autumn plumage may be duller. Field marks may be less obvious. But most birds don’t change much from spring to fall.
But some do. Blackpolls, Cape May warblers, bay-breasted warblers and Blackburnian warblers are a real pain in the butt. For instance, blackpolls are black-and-white in the spring, greenish in the fall. I had to follow my mystery warbler around the yard for several minutes to be sure.
Wherever all these birds came from, it wasn’t near here. I’m guessing their overnight flight started somewhere in northern Quebec, or perhaps Labrador. Meanwhile, many of the resident nuthatches, chickadees and golden-crowned kinglets joined the feeding frenzy. I was simultaneously enjoying two phenomena that happen during migration season.
A fallout occurs when nocturnal migrants greet the dawn by settling down wherever they happen to be, ready to forage and fatten up before continuing the journey. Since multiple species often fly together when conditions are right, they also tend to fall out together.
A foraging flock occurs when multiple species move together through an area. There are advantages to this feeding strategy. There are more eyes watching for danger. Insects are often startled into exposing themselves. It doesn’t happen in summer very much, when songbirds are on nesting territories and avoiding each other, but it happens a lot in the offseason, even among resident birds that don’t migrate.
The flocking urge is strong this time of year. There is a gap in the trees beyond my deck. I know there were 32 birds present, because as they were foraging down the tree line, they all crossed the gap in unison, making them easy to count. Not a single bird remained on the south side of the gap, as all continued foraging northward to the neighbor’s property.
Migration in Maine is like a three-act play. As I sit on the deck, I sense that the curtain is coming down on Act Two. Act One occurs between mid-August and mid-September, when the bulk of the songbirds, shorebirds and raptors fly south.
During Act Two, the stragglers pass through in a smaller wave. Many of them are birds that aren’t migrating very far. Some ruby-crowned kinglets go no farther than New Jersey. None dare fly over the ocean to Caribbean islands or South America. Ruby-crowned kinglets are among the first migrants to arrive in Maine, and last to leave.
Act Three will begin after a brief intermission. By October, most insect-eating birds have vanished, along with their food supply. Seed-eating birds are in no such hurry. Autumn is when ripe seeds and grains make life easy for vegetarians, at least until snow covers the crop.
White-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos are beginning to move. By mid-October, white-crowned sparrows from northern Canada will pass through in bigger numbers. Other sparrows wander in and out.
Meanwhile, other birds are heading south for the winter. For some, Maine is south enough. Snow buntings arrive from the Arctic in October, about the same time most sea ducks come in from Hudson Bay. Red-necked grebes started arriving in late August. By Veterans Day, most overwintering seabirds will get here.
Winds on Monday were from the south — an undesirable headwind for any bird wishing to resume its journey. The ruby-crowned kinglets lingered another day, then left my yard Monday night. Not one remains.
Belay that. I just heard a kinglet utter its cryptic call note, something that sounds like Harry Potter’s “quidditch.” And there’s the palm warbler that has been sharing my yard for a week! Sometimes, my best birding is done while just sitting on the porch.