For the Birds Radio Program: Early Fall Migration

Original Air Date: Aug. 9, 2000 Rerun Dates: Aug. 11, 2009; Aug. 20, 2008; Aug. 23, 2002; Aug. 10, 2001

What birds are moving about this time of the season? Listen to the sounds of waxwings and Merlins as well as learning about what they’re up to.

Duration: 4′06″


Fall migration is kicking in in earnest. Chickadees are starting to organize themselves into winter flocks, and warblers are joining up with them. Every time chickadees appear at my backyard feeders, at least two or three warblers are flitting about in the bushes near them-redstarts and Black-and-whites and yellow-rumps for the most part right now, but soon the whole array of fall warblers will be zipping through, bewildering more than delighting the birders who see them.

There are 60 species of warblers in all of North America, and about half can be found at one time or another in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but this family has its very own 656-page field guide thanks in large part to these confusing fall warblers. It’s a rewarding challenge for those who patiently try to identify every one of them.

Shorebirds are gathering at shallow ponds and mudflats-these earliest of all migrants are even more confusing than the warblers, and since so many of them gather at sewage ponds, there is a certain unpleasantness in the atmosphere that further detracts from the experience. But there is something so sturdy and strong about shorebirds that I love them nevertheless.

Right now the most ubiquitous birds, whether you’re looking in wetlands or upland habitats, are Cedar Waxwings—they’ re everywhere! These gentle birds eat ripe berries or flutter out from the bare top branches of trees to catch flying insects. Sometimes you’ll see one or two of them in a tree, and then they take off, along with 40 others that you didn’t even notice. Their only vocalizations are soft and sibilant, conjuring up the image of tiny mice snoring. More than anything else, Cedar Waxwings epitomize the lazy, lovely days of late summer for me.

Merlins are hanging out in every neighborhood of Duluth right now. One lugged its kill to the roof peak right outside my son Joey’s bedroom a couple of weeks ago. Merlin families are amazingly noisy for birds of prey—they squawk like a bunch of hyperactive Killdeer, and you wonder why all their prey species don’t just pack up and leave, but somehow Merlins manage to kill plenty despite their noisiness. Family units stick together for weeks after the babies fledge, the young learning a lot of hunting skills from their parents. Merlins time their migration south to coincide with songbird migration so they can fuel their flight south.

Many people have been noticing hummingbirds lately. Even this late in the season it’s a good idea to set out feeders to attract them in as they migrate along—it gives them needed fuel and gives you a lovely vision in your own backyard. Hummingbirds are daytime migrants, easily attracted to the color red.. As long as the feeder has some red parts, they will certainly notice, so red food coloring is unnecessary as well as unhealthy for them. In captivity, hummingbirds fed nectar with food coloring live a much shorter life than those that don’t, dying from various ailments including cancer.

Right now there’ s an abundance of birds, the vegetation is lush and lovely, and the weather is pleasant. What better way to take advantage of this beautiful season than to take a long walk? A pair of binoculars, a field guide, a little lunch, and a friendly dog are all you need to give yourself a memorable and rewarding day.