For the Birds Radio Program: Autumn

Original Air Date: Aug. 6, 2001

Summer vacation seems to stretch well into the future, but birds are already starting to migrate.

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According to my calendar and to all the little kids still on summer vacation, fall is still over a month away. But according to many birds, autumn is upon us. Most songbirds have packed away their music for the season, and some are already headed south. A few don’t want to let go of their summer dreams, but they are few and far between. A month ago a huge assortment of bird songs flooded through my bedroom window at dawn. Now the Mourning Dove is the only one still going at it. His voice got lost with the other background singers in early July, but now he’s doing a solo, and with no one accompanying him, his plaintive tune sounds more mournful than ever.

The waning days of summer bring the relief of cooler nights along with the threat of colder days. It seems to us humans that anticipation of the coming winter is what hastens birds away. But migration begins in August for a more practical reason. Babies are grown and insects and fruits are wonderfully abundant. They simply want to get going while the going’ s good.

At this point we don’ t notice the handful of birds that have left-what we’ re mainly noticing are the birds that have arrived here from farther north. Shorebirds are the most noticeable early migrants because so many of them find way stations in Minnesota and Wisconsin where they can replenish their food stores to sustain them for the next leg in their migration. Healthy wetlands are critical for their well-being during this vulnerable time.

Swallows are gathering on power lines and dead tree limbs as they prepare for their own migration. Even the somwhat solitary Bank and Tree Swallows gather in flocks for the journey. If the sight of them isn’t cheerful enough, imagining the thousands of mosquitoes and other insects they eat makes the sight of them downright joyful.

Just a couple of weeks ago I was watching a mother Blackbumian Warbler feeding her fledglings. Now they are probably gone from their territory, joining up with chickadee flocks by day, wending their way south by night. Warbler migration has invariably started in north country by August 1. Keep watch whenever you hear chickadees and you will see warblers. Whether you can identify them is another story- fall warblers are one of the notoriously difficult groups to puzzle through. Plan on being confused when you identify them and then every one that you do figure out will be a triumph rather than every one you can’t figure out being a failure.

Some of the earliest migrants will be gone before you know it. Treasure each glimpse of your neighborhood orioles and kingbirds , because it may be your last look during this millennium. And keep an eye on your hummingbirds as well-the males are starting to depart now. Keeping track of the last one of summer is a lot trickier than noticing the first one of spring. Summer wanes and ends much more gradually and imperceptibly than spring begins, and there are still plenty of warm days ahead. But birds are growing restless. Enjoy their long end of the season parade for as long as you can .