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September Bird Departures

female Pine Warbler in front of a male eastern Bluebird
Vicki DeLoach
Female Pine Warbler in front of a male Eastern Bluebird.

We did it folks, we made it to September. It’s time to take a deep breath, look around, and realize we can almost visit our local beaches again. It’s also time to check in on late summer bird migration, which, unlike tourist season, can be subtle and quiet.

Luckily, not all migrants are subtle or quiet. You’ve probably noticed big, noisy flocks of grackles moving around, maybe noisily invading your yard for a while before disappearing. You’d know it if they came through as their calls are pretty jarring – you will never hear them on one of those soothing spa music recordings they play during your massage – hence, you are not likely to miss them when they move on. And they will move on altogether, as grackles are rarely seen here in the winter — most head south as far as Florida for the winter.

Robins are also gathering, as local birds have all fledged their young and formed flocks, roving about in search of fruit and bugs. They’re not nearly as noisy as grackles and the flocks aren’t so big yet, but they are moving around and, like the grackles, getting ready to leave the area. Eventually you may notice there aren’t any robins around most places, until eventually some cold fronts bring in migrant and wintering robins in late October and November.

Some other local birds are forming mixed species flocks right now, especially at edges where woods meet grassy areas. The classic mix here on the Cape is goldfinches, bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows, and Pine Warblers, with maybe some House Finches and other species mixed in. So if you see a sudden influx of goldfinches in your neighborhood, check carefully for bluebirds and Pine Warblers cruising with them. At this time of year this normally arboreal warbler spends a lot of time on the ground. I have been seeing these particular mixed flocks both at home and at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary over the last week — check the grasslands just north of the visitor’s center.

Some of the less common migrant songbirds from further north are also quietly moving through, but like ghosts revealing themselves only to those who believe in them. Examples noted by birders this week include Cape May, Bay-breasted, and Mourning Warblers, American Redstarts, Warbling Vireo, and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that stopped by the South Monomoy Lighthouse. These birds are not singing like they are in May, nor are they as colorful in most cases, so you need to either work hard, get lucky, or both.

Finally (in more ways than one), Mass Audubon has given the ok to go back to bird feeding, recognizing that the mysterious bird malady of spring and summer never reached Massachusetts and has disappeared in the affected states. They remind us to keep our bird feeding stations clean, using a 10% bleach solution every other week or so on feeders and bird baths. This can help prevent salmonella outbreaks like the one that hit mainly the western US last year, killing many finches and other birds.

But for now, we are in the clear, so resume feeding as you see fit. Also consider adding some landscape plants, especially native shrubs and trees like oaks, willows, and various fruiting shrubs like viburnums and native dogwoods, and don’t forget native grasses. Because it’s our native plants that produce the insects, fruits, and seeds that birds really need. Most of the dozens of species of songbirds that are currently gearing up for long distance migrations won’t be visiting your birdfeeders, but they will benefit from native plantings, so ditch the big lawn you never use and the various Japanese and European shrubberies, and go native – the birds, and maybe even the birders, will thank you.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.