A slow change in the seasons

The tilted Earth spinning endlessly around the Sun is now bringing us, in the Northern Hemisphere, the time of shorter days and cooler temperatures. There is a gradual change of (feathered) guard accompanying the slow change of seasons. At Cabot Head we are entering the last days of the long-distance migrants, the bird species flying to tropical climes in South America (like Blackpoll Warblers and Veery), Central America (like Nashville Warblers and Baltimore Orioles drinking nectar from tropical blooms), and the West Indies (like American Redstarts finding and defending a winter home in the mangroves of Cuba). Most of these species have now moved through and are slowly being replaced with the short-distance migrants, the sparrows, kinglets, creeper, and finches.

It is a time of flux, of mix, of wondering if the hummingbird visiting the feeder would be the last of the season. For now, our last Ruby-throated Hummingbird was on September 15. Shortly afterwards, on the 19th, we detected our first Brown Creeper of the fall season (as well as the first Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Lincoln’s Sparrow). Likewise, the last – so far – American Redstart (a gorgeous adult male) was captured on September 21, the same day that the first Blue-headed Vireo was detected.

Migrating birds in the fall are not as much in a rush as in the spring, when the need to secure a territory, find a mate, and bring up a new generation is an all-time consuming endeavour. In the fall, after a successful (or not) breeding season, after moulting a brand new set of feathers, there are no incentives to rush away: as long as food and weather are a-plenty, birds can linger… up to a point, of course. Their internal clock will still dictate the general timing of their departure and birders can definitely set their calendars by the birds they observe: the first Orange-crowned Warblers, for example, in southern Ontario are likely to arrive in late September, not late August. Ours was on the 23rd.

Captures have certainly picked up now after a slow start. We have notably been busy banding lots of thrushes, mostly Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked. The latter has now a banding total of 41, almost double the previous high of 23 in fall 2002! And with 64 Swainson’s Thrushes banded so far this fall, it is the second highest total (79 birds in fall 2015). On the other hand, with only 54 American Redstarts banded this season, we reached the second lowest ever (slightly higher than 44 birds in fall 2007) and far, far below the highest total of 198 American Redstarts banded in fall 2003.

And, as mentioned earlier, Sparrows and Kinglets and Creepers have been arriving: a few White-crowned Sparrows (both adults and young) have been arriving since September 23 from their northern haunts (joining the two adults who spent their summer at Cabot Head); White-throated Sparrows have been present in good numbers since mid-September (after the first one on September 2); Ruby- and Golden-crowned Kinglets have started to enliven the woods with their high-pitched calls and high-energy demeanour over the last few days.

So, despite the shorter days and saying good-bye to hummingbirds and redstarts, and swimming in Wingfield Basin, there are still a lot of birds to come and a lot of fun to be had at Cabot Head Research Station.