September heralds the autumn migration season for many of the birds that migrated to (or through) Ohio last spring. These birds have raised a family, and it is time to head south to warmer locations for the coming winter. And their kids are heading south as well. This is a big time for birders!
Two migration seasons, and why spring is easier than autumn for birders
Bird migration is a grand drama played out twice per year in temperate and colder climates. Seasonally speaking, autumn migration is both a good time and a trying time for birders. To understand why, let’s take a brief look at spring migration. In April and May, migrating birds are heading north as the weather warms up after the winter season. They are heading to their breeding grounds to raise their offspring. As the numbers of insects increase, so does the food supply. So birds expand to fill territories that were without enough food during the winter months.
Spring migration is the best time of the year for many birders. All of the migrants they see flooding through their areas are adult birds wearing their most colorful breeding plumage- the birds are ready to attract a mate and raise a family as soon as possible. This means that birders are seeing birds in their finest plumage, which makes them easier to identify.
Now, in autumn migration, a good amount of the birds heading south are immature birds born this past summer. They have yet to attain their colorful breeding plumage. The adults that raised them have often molted after the nesting season, meaning that they have a new coat of feathers that is not as brilliant as their former mating feathers. This results in duller-looking birds during the autumn migration. This is a challenge to birders, who not only must have an idea of what both males and females of a species look like- which can be quite different due to sexual dimorphism– but they also need to know what an immature bird looks like, which can be different than what its parents look like. As you can imagine, this can be a difficult task.
Warblers in autumn
In North America, Wood Warblers are among the most popular bird migrants because of their bright colors. Broadly speaking, these are small birds who hunt for insects in the leaves of trees. Most of them winter in the southern US or Central/South America, and a good amount of them breed in the northern US and Canada. They tend to have small almost needle-like beaks for catching insects on the leaves of trees and plants. They often have distinctive songs.
In the last 2 to 3 weeks, I’ve seen a decent amount of warblers on my various nature walks. They tend to travel in modest-sized flocks with other warblers, or even along with mixed feeding flocks of other birds. There’s safety in numbers, so this makes sense. More eyes to see potential predators as well as potential food sources.
Here are some of the warblers I’ve photographed. They can be tricky to get good photos of because they move around a lot foraging for food, and they are in trees and bushes which can lead to difficulty in seeing a whole bird who happens to be facing your way. The challenge is part of the attraction to seeing and identifying these birds- my identifications are of a best-guess variety here.
This little one is scouting out the leaves for insects- warblers do this a lot, often continually moving.
Peeking through the undergrowth.
Glimpsed through the leaves. Who is watching who?
A good view of the striped head of the Black and White Warbler. This is one of the easier warbler species to identify.
This is a handsome Black-Throated Green Warbler, often identified by its somewhat buzzy song: ‘zu-zee, zu-zu-zee’
This is a Cape May Warbler– it has a distinctive facial pattern.
Here’s a Chestnut-Sided Warbler with the chestnut-colored feather streak visible on its side.
This colorful bird is a Magnolia Warbler.
This Nashville Warbler sat still for a few seconds, allowing me to get a good picture- I was very happy 🙂
An American Redstart, a common warbler seen in Ohio, notable for flashing its color patches as it searches for food.
This Tennessee Warbler scans the leaves above for insects.
A Yellow-Rumped Warbler searches for insects in a Wingstem wildflower’s leaves.
For beginning birders, autumn can be a serious challenge. Spring will give you less problems identification-wise, but if you wish to enjoy nature’s beauty, any season is a fine season.