Flying South!

On August 26, a few small flocks of Canada Goose (for a total of 82 birds) were flying South, their iconic V-shaped formation aiming towards warmer climes, preemptively fleeing the frost, the snow and the icy conditions of the late fall that signal the coming winter. I wonder, are these Canada Geese the most eager, the most timid, or the most sensitive to cold? They are certainly the early fall migration scouts, the harbingers of more to come, and the first to cross over the Cabot Head skies this summer (or is it fall now that geese are flying South?). With 19 years of migration monitoring, it is possible to look back and compare my observations with previous years. On August 23, 2005, a startling 255 Canada Geese were counted but, on August 31, 2017, there were 684 geese counted! But these days are the exception to the rule: a few other days in August bring totals between 25 and 70 birds on the move, but, most often than not, there are barely any notable movements of Canada Goose during this month. However, it won’t be long until a serious migration of Canada Goose unfolds during the first week of September: I’ll keep you posted, with counts and honks, of course.

Migration was indeed quite slow this past week, with very few obvious movements or bird activities, and this was reflected in low captures in the mist nets. On the first net check on the morning of August 22, with the sun slowly poking over the watery horizon, I approached a strange, dark shape caught in net A5, hanging there in the shadow of a big Sugar Maple tree. My brain, pre-coffee, was working hard to match the apparition to a species. It was after I finally put my hands on the bird and started gently extracting it, that I understood why it was so difficult to recognize it. It was our first Eastern Whip-poor-will of 2020 monitoring and only the third eastern Whip-poor-will EVER to be captured during the migration monitoring at Cabot Head! I still remember vividly the one that was caught and banded in the spring of 2005, it got caught in the net after it sang so loudly around the station. A second bird was captured in fall 2013, when I was actually not present. So, it was with trepidation that I pulled the Whip-poor-will out of the net. It was an adult male, with the trademark white patches on its tail, the short bill but a wide mouth, along with long modified feathers around the beak/mouth that resemble cat whiskers. Their plumage is designed to mimic the surrounding habitat – so the bird looks a lot like dead leaves and grey bark. It is quite small for such a vociferous bird, all wings and mouth, weighing less than an American Robin. In fact, this bird weighed only 45g, as much as a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Why would I compare it to a seed-specialist passerine? 

Simply because later on that fateful day, we caught four Grosbeaks, with three in the same net at the same time, ready to pounce on my fingers with their namesake GROS bill.

August 22 turned out to be the best banding day so far this fall season, with a good catch of various warblers, notably eleven Black-throated Green Warblers, five Black-and-white Warblers, and to spice things up, one Bay-breasted and one Canada Warblers! In total, 12 species of warblers got detected that day.

Other noteworthy moments: on August 25, five (5!) Merlins and two American Kestrels were flying together above Middle Bluff, chasing and diving at each other. The Merlins were picking mostly on the hapless Kestrels. I had never observed that many Merlins flocking together before this time at Cabot Head.

The morning surprise, on August 26th, was a young White-winged Crossbill! It is a species that has been only captured in three previous fall seasons (and never in spring) but never this early in fall migration. In fall 2008, a total of 22 White-winged Crossbills were captured, with three on September 13, the earliest date before now, and the other 19 were caught all at once in the same net on October 19. The other Crossbills were caught on October 31, with two birds in 2011 and one in 2012. 

As I constantly repeat: “always expect the unexpected” at migration time! So, keep your mind open and your ears and eyes sharp!