The Fall migration monitoring has begun!

On August 15th, with all 15 mist nets set up and ready to go, I was out at 6am to start a new season of bird migration monitoring 30 minutes before Mister Sun was up and shining. A clear dawn greeted me as I opened the nets, walking the now well-trodden path and net lanes, ears and eyes wide open for bird songs and signs. Keeping tracks of every bird heard or seen, checking nets every 30 minutes, banding every bird captured, that is now the program for the next 78 days: fall monitoring has begun!

Fall? But it is August, the dog days of summer, you would say! Indeed. So instead of “Fall”, maybe we should say “post-breeding” migration or “southward” migration or “time to go to our winter tropical vacation” migration. In the end, even if we are still sweltering under oppressive heat and humidity, it is simpler to talk of fall migration.

Birds have indeed started to fly south after their breeding season, to spend the winter in tropical climes, where food would be plentiful and snow but an impossible idea. The long-distance migrants, the warblers, the vireos, the flycatchers, are already on the move.

At Cabot Head we’ve noticed the first waves of migrants, mixed with the local birds. Many species of warblers are around or moving through: Black-throated Green Warbler (with many local young birds), American Redstart (another abundant local bird), Black-and White Warbler (quite a few banded already), Common Yellowthroat (likewise). Some species that breed in the Boreal Forest have also appeared: A Tennessee Warbler was banded on August 17; one and two Blackburnian Warblers banded on August 18 and 19, respectively, with fat reserves for the journey ahead; one Cape May Warbler on August 20. Red-eyed Vireos have also been quite numerous in our nets during this first week with notably ten birds on August 19, starting the long trip to the Amazon forest.

At the same time, some birds are still taking care of fledged young. A pair of Eastern Towhee is seen daily hopping on the ground, looking for food to carry back to their young. Once, I watched the male grabbing a big juicy grasshopper and flying away with it. In the early morning of August 19, one young Towhee was actually captured, crying loudly with adults nearby calling back. 

The Bald Eagle pair is also taking care of their one eaglet: we can often hear the loud whistle of the youth, as it begs for food or greet an adult coming with a fish in its talons. The local Merlins seem to have been good parents too: 3 or 4 young birds can be seen flying together, chasing each other in aerial display of skills they would need to fine-tuned to survive independence.

Shorebirds are a group of species that migrate quite early as well. Unfortunately, we don’t see many at Cabot Head because there is not much habitat for them. Sometimes, though, we can catch a glimpse as they fly by at high speed. On August 18, it was their calls that alerted us to their presence: one Semipalmated Sandpiper and two Lesser Yellowlegs.

The fall monitoring has undoubtedly started, even if it still looks and feels like summer. So, let’s enjoy these warm days and short nights while preparing for the inexorable change heralded by the first birds quietly flying south.