The cool weather and gray skies arrived this past week, and with them came the fall birding doldrums. This usually hits me when I realize that we are now halfway through the fall migration season, and that more species have already departed than are still left to come. It’s going to be at least seven months before I hear another Ovenbird or see a flock of Barn Swallows swooping over farm fields; the Wood Thrush, the Eastern Kingbird, and the Yellow Warbler are all somewhere far south of here. Both the birds and the seasons are moving on, and this was made evident when we had to turn the heat on as the nights started dropping down into the single digit temperatures.
I headed out to the Eagleson Ponds yesterday morning, but didn’t spend much time there as there wasn’t much to photograph. After about an hour I ended up with 27 species, and for the first time in months I did not see or hear the Northern Flicker. Sparrows and finches were abundant – it was a mild morning, and several Song Sparrows were still singing. A couple of White-throated Sparrows were attempting to sing, too. A couple of those popped into view when I started pishing, as did an adult and juvenile White-crowned Sparrow.
American Goldfinches were noisily conspicuous, with many hanging out in the dead ash tree right near the Fernbrook entrance. I also came across a pair of female-type Purple Finches hanging out with a small group of House Finches; this is only the second time I’ve recorded Purple Finch here, and it seemed a bit strange to see them feeding closely with the House Finches in the birch trees. At least three Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Tennessee Warbler were present, as were the Double-crested Cormorants, a Great Blue Heron, and a Belted Kingfisher.
A couple of American Pipits and American Robins flew over, as did a couple of large flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds. I estimated about 80-100 birds in three flocks flying south out of the cattail marsh on the other side of Eagleson – they roost there in large flocks at night and leave during the day to feed in the nearby cornfields.
I only saw three shorebirds while I was there – a Killdeer, a Spotted Sandpiper, and a yellowlegs that confused me at first because the bill looked intermediate between Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. However, it didn’t have a distinctly up-turned look or a pale base, and my experience with these two confusing species has been that if the bill doesn’t immediately strike me as long enough for Greater Yellowlegs, it’s not. The bill also appears to be sharp rather than blunt, which is another feature of the Lesser Yellowlegs.
After leaving the ponds I headed over to Lime Kiln Trail, a place I’ve been meaning to visit this fall. My walk got off to a good start when I saw some Golden-crowned Kinglets, a Pileated Woodpecker and a Winter Wren all along the first part of the trail, and heard a Ruffed Grouse drumming in the woods. I heard a Swamp Sparrow sing briefly in the marsh and two Gray Catbirds mewing in the vegetation next to the trail. I was able to entice one out into the open by pishing; it was then I realized it was feeding on the wild grapes there.
I took the side trail through the old burn site and found an Eastern Phoebe, several Purple Finches, and a pair of Blue Jays looking for handouts. A couple of Song Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows were hanging out in the open area at the far edge of the burn site, but it wasn’t until I followed the main trail back through it that I found my first good flock of migrants. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet was bouncing around in a tree next to the trail, and several juncos (my first of the season!) were calling from the dense understory. Eventually a couple of them popped up into view and landed on the trail in order to feed. A yellowish bird joined them, though it was more interested in working its way through the vegetation only a couple of inches above the ground; a closer look revealed it to be a Palm Warbler. A few Purple Finches were also moving in the same direction but higher up in the trees; I am not sure whether the birds were all part of one big mixed flock of migrants or just happened to converge in the area where I was standing. Then another bird popped into view, and I was thrilled to see a Fox Sparrow right in front of me! I haven’t seen this bird since the spring of 2015, having missed it during the last two migrations. Ebird flagged it as rare, possibly because this species isn’t expected until later in the month.
My next stop of the day was the Moodie Drive quarry where I hoped to find some ducks; two Pied-billed Grebes, over a dozen Ring-necked Ducks, a single Gadwall, and a Double-crested Cormorant were the only species present besides the usual mallards and Canada Geese. Four Turkey Vultures were resting on the large sand hill to the left of the gate, and again I heard a Golden-crowned Kinglet and a Yellow-rumped Warbler in the small spruce tree next to the gate. I didn’t see very many geese on the pond and was wondering where they were; this question was partially answered when I took a drive down Cambrian Road and found at least 1500 in the field near where the Mountain Bluebird was discovered last year. I wasn’t going to stop, but when I saw the single Snow Goose among the flock at the back, I got out and took a few pictures.
My last stop of the day was Terry Carisse Park on Steeple Hill, famous solely because of the Hooded Warbler that visited in 2014. It’s a nice little park along the edge of the Jock River, with some interesting swampy inlets, and I thought I might find some migrants in the shrubs that line the park. I wasn’t prepared, however, to see a huge flock of Red-winged Blackbirds lining the trees! They were making quite the racket, and I enjoyed hearing their chucks and whistles and the odd “Oka-reeeee!” as I know from experience it will be a long, dreary winter without those sounds.
I began walking toward the river for a closer look, and found some other songbirds in the brushy area to the right of the gate – these included a single Eastern Phoebe, a Song Sparrow, and a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets. The only other birds of interest that I saw after a quick walk to the play area were a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers and two Dark-eyed Juncos. Then I heard a different noise coming from one of the small trees next to the road. About 20 blackbirds were perched in its bare branches, and when I scanned them I realized the one at the top was a Rusty Blackbird! I took a few photos to be certain, but the light was terrible and the gray sky background made for a lousy picture. I was pleased with the sighting, as it brought my day’s total up to 46 species.
It was raining when I woke up this morning, so I didn’t go birding. I didn’t expect to find any new species to add to my month list, but I had to go out a couple of times and stopped to check out the ponds from Emerald Meadows Drive on my way out of the subdivision. The first time I saw a Great Egret and a Belted Kingfisher on the north side of the road, and hundreds of gulls on the south side. I would have loved to have gone to check out the gulls but a light misty rain was falling and I had errands to run. The second time was late in the afternoon. This time I saw a Green Heron immediately below the road on the south side – I was happy to see that at least three heron species were still around, though I haven’t seen the Black-crowned Night-herons since September 18th. I heard some chip notes in the trees next to the road and when I investigated, I found a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and a Nashville Warbler! The Nashville Warbler is a new species for this hotspot, so I was glad I stopped.
Despite the gray weekend I found enough blackbirds, warblers, flycatchers, kinglets, pipits, sparrows and shorebirds to keep the fall doldrums from setting in. It is not quite time to start scanning the river for loons, grebes, scoters, Long-tailed Ducks or Brant, but that time is coming. Until then, there are just enough songbird species around to make a walk in the woods worthwhile, as the late-season songbirds continue to trickle through.