I had decided last week that this week’s bird report would be about how farms and community gardens are among the best places for October birding. As if to bolster my case, a stunning male Painted Bunting decided to show up at Cape Cod Organic Farm in Barnstable this past Sunday. Sporting Day-Glo colors that look downright obscene against our classic, understated fall color palette, this bird is both visually and geographically out of place for October in New England.
For reasons that aren’t clear to me, between one and five of these guys can be expected on the Cape any given fall through winter, though they are supposed to be wintering in South Florida.
While Painted Buntings typically turn up at bird feeders in these parts, it makes sense that they would also hang out at those classic sparrow and bunting haunts, our local community gardens and farms. In addition to this fancy rarity, birders have been turning up some of the more expected fall goodies at the local community gardens, species like Dickcissels and Clay-colored Sparrows more typical of the prairie states, Bobolinks stopping by on their way to Argentinian grasslands, and Indigo Buntings, which unfortunately are not Indigo at this season. In fact, there’s not much color to be had in October birding – even the warblers have traded their vibrant colors for grays and washed out yellows. But there’s real beauty in the subtle browns and grays of sparrows and other fall songbirds, and a special kind of satisfaction that comes from learning to distinguish the “little brown jobs” of the bird world.
What is drawing all these birds to the farms and gardens? It’s not those surplus tomatoes you can never seem to get rid of, it’s the “weeds”. The unkempt edges of gardens and farms are full of weedy, seed-laden plants that birds and other wildlife love, like foxtail grass, smartweed, evening primrose, pokeweed, and even the much maligned ragweed. Even I didn’t realize until recently that ragweed, that villain of allergy season, is actually a native plant important for wildlife. And all of those garden flowers that have now gone to seed are feeding finches and sparrows galore, which is why I always recommend leaving those last flower heads of the season alone. And these areas also tend to be open and sunny, meaning they hold insects later into the fall. Almost every garden still has an Eastern Phoebe hanging around to snatch those last insects of the fall.
Many gardens and farms still have flowers blooming in October and even November, some of which could attract rare hummingbirds. A plot full of Pineapple Sage in the Nantucket Community Gardens attracted a super-rare Calliope Hummingbird a few Octobers ago. And a home garden on the Vineyard growing an obscure tropical annual known as firecracker vine has attracted a mystery hummingbird this week. All of those flowers are great for late butterflies as well, like the hordes of Painted Ladies still on the wing.
If you decide to look for that Painted Bunting at the organic farm, please follow the common sense rules of birding on private property - It only takes one or two “birders behaving badly” to shut a location down to all of us. Check in with the staff on where you can go, and stick to the roads when in doubt. Maybe buy a pumpkin or two. Just think of yourself as a “birding ambassador” wherever you go, and you’ll be fine.