Birds of Early Fall

Winter Wren

By the end of September there is a change in the air. There are fewer warbler species and more sparrows and thrushes and kinglets as the temperature starts to fall and the nights grow longer than the days. On the last Saturday in September I started my day with a walk at the Eagleson ponds, where only a few Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs remained after the recent rains caused the water levels to rise. The Great Black-backed Gull, three heron species, and a single kingfisher were still present as well. About 150 Canada Geese were swimming throughout the ponds; these were new, as only one or two families had stayed the summer. The only Red-winged Blackbirds I saw were all in a single flock of about two dozen birds flying over, and while Song Sparrows were still numerous, the first Dark-eyed Junco had arrived. A single Ruby-crowned Kinglet, two Yellow-rumped Warblers, and two Blackpoll Warblers were signs that the season was changing.

From there I traveled to Sarsaparilla Trail, usually a good spot to see some interesting birds in mid-fall. I was not disappointed as I tallied 20 species in 90 minutes. I didn’t think there was much to see at the pond – a phoebe was catching flies at the end of the boardwalk, but there were no raptors, no diving ducks, and no dabbling ducks. Canada Geese, however, had invaded the pond here too, the only waterfowl species present. Then I heard a couple of chips from two different Swamp Sparrows hidden in the reeds and managed to coax one out into the open with some pishing. I was startled at first when I saw the bright white throat – while adults in breeding plumage do show this feature, the white on this bird extended to the cheeks and all the way up to the eye on the left side. I tried to get some photos but it refused to come out into the open. Birds with unusual amounts of white in their plumage are affected by a condition called leucism. This condition is caused by a genetic mutation that prevents pigment, particularly melanin, from developing properly in a bird’s feathers. I see leucism very rarely, so it’s always a surprise when a familiar bird with large amounts of white turns up.

Swamp Sparrow

There was more activity in the woods. I saw White-crowned Sparrows on the ground, Golden- and Ruby-crowned Kinglets in the trees, and had a Blue-headed Vireo out in the open near the trail entrance. There was even more activity near the picnic shelter, where several birds were feeding on the wild grapes growing on the vines. There were the usual robins, two Gray Catbirds, and several spotted thrushes. I was surprised when I identified them all as Swainson’s Thrushes.

Swainson’s Thrush

There were at least half a dozen present feeding on the fruit, though they kept flying back and forth, rarely staying in view for very long. I spotted more birds in the woods beyond the outhouse, so a conservative guess would be about 8-10 individuals! I had never seen so many Swainson’s Thrushes in one spot, and I thought this what it must have been like birding prior to the 1960s when population declines started affecting many North American bird species. Swainson’s Thrushes are identified by the buffy eye-ring and buffy wash on the face.

Swainson’s Thrush

One Yellow-rumped Warbler was also in the area, and pishing brought out a sparrow that flew high into a tree right into the sun. My first impression was Lincoln’s Sparrow, a species I haven’t recorded at Sarsaparilla Trail yet, though it was backlit and didn’t stay in view for long. I really wanted confirmation for this bird but no amount of pishing could bring it back into the open.

The following Saturday I made my way up to the river. There was a greater variety of waterfowl present here, including a Wood Duck, an American Wigeon, six Green-winged Teals, and a Common Goldeneye. A Great Blue Heron and Great Egret were still present, as was a Belted Kingfisher perching in a tree overlooking the pond, but the bird that surprised me most was a juvenile Spotted Sandpiper working its way along the shoreline.

Spotted Sandpiper

When I got home later that morning, I spotted my first junco of the season in my yard, as well as a family of cardinals! A male and female are resident on my street and often come to my feeder at dusk and dawn while it’s still dark. I haven’t seen them with any young this season – until now, when I heard the begging cries of this youngster and watched the adult female bring it food. It was October 6th, which seems late for them to still be feeding young, though perhaps they’d had other broods earlier in the year. This is the juvenile perching on the fence – you can distinguish it from the female by its dark bill.

Northern Cardinal (juvenile)

The next morning I returned to the Eagleson ponds to find ten times the number of geese (1500!) present. The only other new waterfowl species was a female Hooded Merganser swimming in the central pond. Two Great Egrets and a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron were still present, and several White-throated Sparrows had invaded the cedar hedges behind the houses.

Black-crowned Night-heron (juvenile)

My best find was a Winter Wren I heard calling repeatedly from the stand of conifers near where the Olive-sided Flycatcher spent the morning last spring. I heard the “check-check” call several times, but could not pish it out into the open nor find it visually. This was a new bird for the Eagleson Ponds, and one I am quite fond of. It was frustrating to hear it so close without being able to pinpoint its location.

Fortunately I had better luck at the Beaver Trail on Thanksgiving Monday. Usually we can count on Thanksgiving to be warm enough for T-shirts, but a cold front had moved in and it was unseasonably cold. Birds were difficult to find until I reached the back boardwalk, but I did come up with Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and almost a dozen Wild Turkeys. At the observation platform near the back I found a large number of sparrows, including Dark-eyed Juncos, Song Sparrows, and White-throated Sparrows.

Dark-eyed Junco

I found two Winter Wrens along the trail. The first was in a small patch of woods between the trail and the marsh on the western side. The other was at the boardwalk near the observation platform. The first ignored all attempts at pishing; the second flew into a shrub, then onto the boardwalk itself to see what I was doing!

Winter Wren

I was thankful to get such great looks at this bird, with its stubby tail sticking straight up and gentle expression. It’s been 12 years since I got my lifer at Sarasaparilla Trail, and I still think it’s cute seeing their little bodies bobbing up and down as if trying to make up for their tiny size when confronted with a human in their territory.

Winter Wren

Early fall is one of my favourite times to go birding. There is a great variety of species still around, although with the arrival of winter birds such as Common Goldeneye and Dark-eyed Juncos it’s hard to distinguish where the line between early and late fall falls exactly. October is often bittersweet for this reason – the last of the warblers, wrens and blackbirds head south, while winter ducks start to move in. With the cold start to the month, who knows what will turn up next!

2 thoughts on “Birds of Early Fall

  1. That Swamp Sparrow is amazing. I’d have loved to have seen that. Great pics of the wren too. You don’t get that chance that often.

    • Isn’t he beautiful? I wish I’d gotten a better photo but he was bouncing around the reeds too much. At least one wren was properly curious when I tried to lure it out by pishing!

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