After the Equinox

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

While it is true that fall migration proceeds at a much more leisurely pace than migration in the spring, each species moves according to its own internal calendar. In late August and early September you might find warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, flycatchers, vireos, orioles, Cedar Waxwings, and Scarlet Tanagers foraging together in a single patch of woods. A month later the same patch of forest might hold sparrows, kinglets, Winter Wrens, Rusty Blackbirds, nuthatches, Hermit Thrushes, and boreal finches, while waterfowl on rivers and ponds increase in numbers and diversity. I usually notice the switch around the fall equinox, when the sparrows start to outnumber the warblers and I realize that it’s been a while since I last saw a flock of Cedar Waxwings. Now is the time to look for American Pipits in open scrubby areas or along rocky shorelines, scoters and grebes along the river, hawks and Turkey Vultures soaring toward southern climes, and any lingering warblers in the hope it is something other than a Yellow-rumped.

I knew change was in the air when I visited the Eagleson Ponds briefly on September 20th. Although the equinox was still technically two days away, the increase in the number of geese and sparrows at the ponds heralded a shift in migration. I found a flock of sparrows feeding on the ground along one of the fence lines bordering the path, and was surprised to see a Swamp Sparrow feeding openly with a couple of White-crowned, White-throated, and Song Sparrows. A Dark-eyed Junco was also present on my visit. I observed only four warblers at the ponds, but each was a different species: a Common Yellowthroat chipping in the vegetation could have been a resident or migrant, while the Palm, Magnolia, and Yellow-rumped Warblers were definitely migrants. In one grove of trees I was happy to find an Eastern Phoebe, a Blue-headed Vireo, and – most surprisingly – a Brown Thrasher picking through the leaves of a squirrel drey about 15 feet in the air. Two Spotted Sandpipers and a Gray Catbird were also still around.

The most interesting non-songbird species I found were three Black-crowned Night Herons all fishing around the edges of the same circular pond – each in a different plumage. The first one I noticed was a streaky brown and white juvenile:

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron – juvenile

The next was a stunning adult with gray and white underparts and a crisp black crown and back. The low morning sun gives this bird a golden hue not present in the field.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron – adult

The third was a “sub-adult” Black-crowned Night Heron. As it takes about three years for these herons to attain full adult plumage, this bird is old enough to have lost its juvenile streaking but not the dull colouration. Its back is brown instead of black, and its gray cap is interspersed with brown feathers.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron – sub-adult

I have never seen all three different plumages so close together, so it was a treat to watch and photograph them!

A trip to Steeple Hill Park on September 27th proved to be rewarding with 25 species. Highlights include two Brown Thrashers (including one sitting in a bare tree completely out in the open), a Hermit Thrush, and a couple of flocks of warblers – most were Yellow-rumped Warblers, but I also found a Nashville Warbler, a Palm Warbler, a Tennessee Warbler, a Black-throated Green Warbler, and my first Orange-crowned Warbler of the year. Most were in the goldenrod field behind the graveyard, feeding in the low shrubs and vegetation.

The following day brought an influx of migrants to my own front yard – for only the second time I saw a Brown Creeper hitching its way up a tree across the street, while a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets zipped through the leaves of the canopy. I heard a Yellow-rumped Warbler but could not spot it; the only warbler I did see turned out to be a Black-throated Green Warbler! This is only the second one I’ve observed from my property.

Late in September I started receiving visits from at least two skunks in my backyard after dark. I first noticed them on September 19th, when I noticed the cats watching the backyard avidly from their spot by the back door. I shone a flashlight outside and was surprised to see not one, but two skunks feeding on the leftover seed on the ground!

Striped Skunk

Striped Skunk

Since then I’ve had visits on September 27 and 30th, though I never did see more than one at a time.

Striped Skunk

Striped Skunk

A visit to Bruce Pit on September 30th proved to be particularly productive for birds, with 41 species! I visited with a couple of friends hoping to find some migrants – and there were plenty. We spotted a few shorebirds on the open shoreline of the north side of the pond and made our way over to check them out. Two Lesser Yellowlegs were feeding in the muck along with a Least Sandpiper.

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

Several species of waterfowl were present, including a Pied-billed Grebe, a Wood Duck (we heard it calling but didn’t see it), a few Green-winged Teal, four Hooded Mergansers, three American Black Ducks, and the numerous geese and mallards. Later, at the bridge, while scanning the dabbling ducks we picked out a female Northern Shoveler as well.

While walking up the toboggan hill I spotted a brown tiger beetle hurrying along the sandy path. We grabbed several photos, but I wasn’t happy with any of them – the beetle was moving too fast among the grass – so I placed my hand on the ground and allowed the beetle to climb onto it. It was a Punctured Tiger Beetle, a species I’d seen here once before on July 5, 2020. I hadn’t realized their season was so long!

Punctured Tiger Beetle

Punctured Tiger Beetle

It took a while before we found any songbird migrants. First we found a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, then several Golden-crowned Kinglets in a pine grove. Warblers were hard to come by, but eventually we found about half a dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Magnolia Warbler, the only two species of the day. There were very few Song Sparrows around (we only counted four), even in the back meadow where I’d come close to finding a nest earlier this year when an agitated sparrow wouldn’t stop chipping at me. We did, however, find a beautiful Oblique-banded Pond Fly, a dark flower fly with six yellow bars angled across the top of the abdomen.

Oblique-banded Pond Fly

Oblique-banded Pond Fly

Oblique-banded Pond Fly

Oblique-banded Pond Fly

From there we headed into the tangles rather than return to the main path around the pond. I thought it might be good for thrushes, and we weren’t disappointed – we found two Swainson’s Thrushes and a Hermit Thrush. One Swainson’s Thrush was perched out in the open with some robins.

Swainson's Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush

Other birds seen or heard include a Chipping Sparrow in the conifer grove next to the parking lot, an Eastern Phoebe near the bridge, a Northern Flicker, a Belted Kingfisher hunting over the water, a Turkey Vulture moving south, and three heron species – there were no Green Herons present on this visit. It was exciting to see a group of shorebirds foraging in the shallow water near the bridge, including a few more Lesser Yellowlegs and three Wilson’s Snipe! This was the first time I’d seen any snipe at this location.

I returned the following Monday, October 4th and ended up with another 41 species. The female Northern Shoveler was still present, as was a female Lesser Scaup, several Blue- and Green-winged Teal, six Hooded Mergansers, and only one Greater Yellowlegs. The Black-crowned Night Heron was gone but two Great Blue Herons and two Great Egrets remained. I had better luck with songbirds this time: I saw both kinglet species and heard a Blue-headed Vireo singing. An Orange-crowned Warbler flitting among the branches of the trees near the lookout was a surprise, as was a Tennessee Warbler in an open area near the bridge. The open area was particularly productive for birds as I also saw a Winter Wren out in the open, a few White-throated Sparrows, and a Field Sparrow!

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow

A few Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Nashville Warbler were still around, and in the tangles along the creek I found some juncos, a White-crowned Sparrow, more White-throated Sparrows, two Hermit Thrushes, and a flock of Rusty Blackbirds among the 60+ robins feeding on the berries! Rusty Blackbirds prefer swampy forests and wooded shorelines, and I usually see them in Stony Swamp or along the Jock River in migration. This is the first time I’ve seen them at Bruce Pit.

Rusty Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird

Although it is sad to see all the birds leaving, the weeks following the equinox can be just as good for birding as the first few weeks of September. The species may have changed, but the variety is just as good as birds from further north start passing through. These include some of my favourites, such as the Blue-headed Vireo, Fox Sparrow, Hermit Thrush, and Orange-crowned Warbler. This is one of my favourite times of year because not only is the birding still dynamic, the weather is still warm, the trees are starting to burst into fall colour, and there are even a few insects still around!

One thought on “After the Equinox

  1. Pingback: 2021 Year in Review: Mammals | The Pathless Wood

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