Saying goodbye to hummingbirds!

The past week was relatively quiet in bird activity: no big waves of migrants moving through green branches, no sudden rush in our nets, no skeins of geese striping the sky. The weather continued to provide us with cool nights and warm days, a perfect balance of sun and clouds, with the occasional outburst of lightning, thunder, and soaking rain. The thunderstorms were always kind enough though, to wait for us to finish our days to unleash their fury. Banding was thus possible every day for the standardized 6 hours, starting now at 6:15am. 

On September 3, we captured and banded the third young Eastern Towhee of the local family. We also had glimpses of another young without a band: at least four young to feed certainly keeps the parents busy! We would be sorry to interrupt them but happy to band the remaining of the family: in the past 19 fall seasons a grand total of two young Eastern Towhees were banded, in 2008 and 2009, both in late October.

That same day, September 3, we heard and briefly saw the two species of crossbills, White-winged and Red, the latter not very common at Cabot Head.

The first Swainson’s Thrush recorded this fall was a bird caught in our nets on September 5. This discrete species typically migrates at Cabot Head during September and is mostly detected through banding. After the first bird, captures in the following days were between 4 and 6 birds, almost always in the very first net check. On September 7, the five Swainson’s Thrushes banded were accompanied by one Veery and two Gray-cheeked Thrushes, the latter species the first of the fall. On that same day, 7 White-throated Sparrows were also captured. It is clear that the previous night had been good for migrating.

The most exciting moment of the day however was the totally unexpected capture of a young Broad-winged Hawk!!! Yes, at least three exclamation marks are necessary to indicate the tremendous moment of our first ever Broad-winged Hawk banded at Cabot Head. The mist nets used here are mostly for passerines and near-passerines, with a mesh size too small to readily entangle the unlucky bigger bird to hit them, like a grouse or a raptor larger than a Merlin or a Sharp-shinned Hawk. For example, in spring 2020, a young Northern Goshawk (!!!) hit a net right before my eyes, but it freed itself thrashing mightily. It perched in a tree right above the net, likely to catch its breath but seemingly to thumb its nose at me (to talon its beak at me?).

This time, we had the Broad-winged Hawk in our disbelieving hands, mindful of the sharp claws, easily untangling the net around its wings and body. The bird seemed as surprised as us about what was happening. Banding felt almost anticlimactic: clinching a “lock-on” band on its tarsus, measuring its wing chord, assessing its age (hatch-year), sex (unknown), weight (impossible: the scale goes only to 200g). After quickly taking lots of pictures, we released it into the sky where it belongs, wishing it good luck for its long migration to the northern reaches of South America! What a treat! Hard to believe but it is actually the second time that a Broad-winged Hawk was captured at Cabot Head: the first time was in spring 2007 but there was no band of the proper size and type to use. 

Imperceptibly but inexorably, birds are leaving us now, slowly disappearing from our woods, without a whisper of a good bye. One day, one sees a hummingbird still buzzing around. Then a few days pass and with a start one thinks: Was it the last for this year? Will I have to wait 8 months to see one returning from its warm winter retreat? But no, the unmistakable whirl of its wings is heard again, a respite for the final good bye. Or maybe that was it! This is the opposite of spring, when every day could bring an arrival: in the fall, one never knows when it is the very last bird one will see until the renewal of spring. As of this writing, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were seen last on September 8. No need to despair yet: throughout the years, hummingbirds have been seen at Cabot Head up to mid, and even late, September. The last ever sighting was a very cold hummingbird on October 7, 2005. I remember picking it up from its perch to bring it to the hummingbird feeder I had neglected to take down: it was in such a torpor that it let me. But once filled with some sugar-laden water, it buzzed away!

Addendum: a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird flew past the porch on the evening of September 9; a fourth young Eastern Towhee was banded in the morning of September 10.