Most of our summer birds should now be on their way to warmer wintering territories. There may be a few stragglers. The molt will finish up and our permanent avian dwellers will return to the bird feeders. The nights will begin to cool down, days become noticeably shorter. Blackbirds are becoming restless. Birds have always been the true harbingers of changing seasons. Our earliest ancestors and Native Tribes relied on watching the birds to time the change in seasons. Even today for folks that do not feed or watch birds they can’t help but notice the changes in bird behavior around them this time of year. Even if it is just the masses of blackbird flocks overhead moving south.
But as we say our last goodbyes to our summer birds they will begin to be replaced by our winter birds arriving from the north country. Early October is the normal arrival date of the Dark-eyed Juncos in our area. They are followed closely by the White Throated Sparrow. These two early arrivers announce the onset of the fall migration of our birds from the north which winter in the Midwest and Central Great Plains states. Many of these birds have spent the breeding season far to the north in the Boreal Forests of Canada, and in the winter some of them become common visitors to our backyards while others continue south.
Other birds which will begin to arrive this month from the north will be the Harris’s sparrow, the largest member of native sparrows and found only in the Great Plains of Canada and the United States, White Crowned Sparrows, Pine Siskins, and the Red-breasted Nuthatches. If we are lucky again this year, as last, we may enjoy some other irruptive species such as Purple Finch and both Red and White Winged Crossbills. Irruptive species are birds that travel south in the winter when natural food resources are scarce in their normal range. The Red-breasted Nuthatch has to be everybody’s favorite winter bird along with the Chickadees. Last year these nuthatches arrived in great numbers to spend the winter and were very common at just about everyone’s bird feeders. People really enjoy these little birds as they seem to be fairly tame. This is probably due to the lack of human activity in the heavily forested areas where they nest. I think they find us as much of a curiosity as we do them.
The month of October always promises to be an exciting month for fall bird migration. A variety of warblers and other northern birds will be passing through. If you do not look for them among the foliage of your trees and bushes or around your water features they may go unnoticed. A small bird flittering amongst the leaves may be worthy of taking the time to investigate. You may be surprised what you might identify as one never knows what bird may suddenly appear in their yard. It may be a Swainson’s Thrush that has been nesting to the far north. A flock of nomadic Waxwings who have banded together, roaming around looking for ripened berries. A Vireo, flycatcher, or any other species of bird migrating through, either in a group or alone. Watch your feeders, bird baths, ponds, and the surrounding habitat in your yard and neighborhood for any new or unusual species. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you discover. Birding is such great fun and these rarities really add to the interest.
During the month of October and into early November we will be enjoying the warbler migration. Roughly 28 warbler species pass through our area during the spring and fall migration. For those that have some shrubs and thickets along with a source of water, preferably moving water, you’re likely to catch a glimpse of these fabulous little birds. We have seen a good variety of warblers in our backyard during migration. Even a few rare ones such as the Hooded Warbler and the Black-throated Blue Warbler. Make certain you have your binoculars ready, a field guide, and many folks these days have cameras. Cameras make for easy identification if you can snap the shot before they fly If you see an unusual bird in your area, feel free to report it to someone you know who is a reliable birder, or call us at the Wild Bird Habitat Store. Most of the rare birds we hear about each year during migration are reported by every day bird enthusiasts who just enjoy feeding birds.
Huge flocks of blackbirds will be increasing in numbers. Their migration is highly anticipated and a welcomed event by those who feed birds in their backyards. They seem to really crowd the feeders in the fall as they prepare to depart. You may even notice the immature blackbirds eating the safflower seed. That is common, but on returning next year as adults they won’t have much of a taste for it. You may notice an absence of blackbirds for a day or two, then it seems they have all of a sudden returned. These are groups of blackbirds moving down from the north almost as if in waves. It may take a week or two for those black birds from the north to filter through our area. But soon they will all have moved on. We are all aware of those cool, cloudy October days when the leaves are blowing across our lawns and the sky is increasingly filled with growing flocks of blackbirds moving south. This is usually one of our first brushes with the reality of the coming winter season. The folks who live in southern states where these huge flocks are headed for the winter are already dreading their arrival. Some winter communal flocks of black birds can number in the millions.
October is the month ducks and geese will be getting ready for their flight to a more southern climate where the water will be open all winter long. Their migration south may linger at times in areas if the weather is nice. But once the arctic fronts begin to bring colder air to the Central United States, usually in November, their movement south rapidly hastens. And as the northern storms push the Snow Geese cross our skies we know we have reached the end of the fall migration and winter snows will soon be arriving.
Again I encourage everyone to take the time this fall and venture out to watch birds in a natural area such as the Nature Center or Spring Creek Prairie. Take a hike through the woodlands in the morning or late afternoon. Walk around the ponds and wetlands. You might be surprised at all the birds you discover. But be sure to take along a field guide and binoculars. At the Pioneers Park Nature Center you can even check these items out for your bird walk. Enjoy October more watching the fall bird migration.
Now is the time for us to make preparations for the upcoming winter as the seasons change. I have found through experience it is easier to set up new bird feeders and get the bird bath cleaned and bird bath heater ready now than when the snow is blowing. Water in winter is vitally needed by our backyard birds. One can almost attract more birds to open water when the temperatures plummet than with just seed alone. If you have a bird bath heater or de-icer, check to make certain it is still in working order.
Since most are thermostatically controlled you can determine if it is working by putting it in your freezer for 20 minutes. Remove it from the freezer and plug it in. You should be able to feel the device warming up. If your bird bath heater or de-icer is covered with scale from last year, you can improve it’s efficiency by soaking it in vinegar for about an hour, then scrub with a stiff brush. Repeat the process as necessary. Wild Bird Habitat has Nebraska’s largest selection of bird bath heaters, de-icers and heated bird baths fully covered by a manufacturer’s warranty.
Wingtip: Migration brings many small wandering birds into the backyard. Often times if we see a small brown bird foraging on the ground we dismiss it as just a common house sparrow. However, watch its feeding technique. If it scratches the ground with its feet much like a chicken feeding it is a native sparrow or other native ground feeder and deserves a second look and identification. House sparrows, which is actually an introduced “weaver finch” from Europe, sweeps the ground with their bill in search of seeds.
Wingtip: Many folks, especially those in rural areas, may see less activity at their feeders as birds take advantage of what natural foods are available. But keep those feeders filled. The birds will return as natural foods are depleted and the weather turns colder.