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Some birds think it’s already fall

Prothonotary Warbler
Ryan Schain
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Prothonotary Warbler

Around here we have three definitions of fall. There’s the familiar astronomical fall, which starts around September 21, the date of the vernal equinox. Then there’s meteorological fall, which starts tomorrow, September 1. This is when the season finally catches up with “bird fall,” which starts in July — many species from Piping Plovers and a few dozen other shorebirds to warblers and other songbirds call it a season and start heading for the exits around then. Bird fall doesn’t show up on many calendars, but it’s very much a thing, I assure you.

Despite the late date, there seemed to be a lot of local birds still finishing up nesting in the last week. I saw someone’s photo of a hummingbird female still with chicks in the nest, and my yard was loud with very recently fledged and still begging robins and Pine Warblers a few days ago. But these late breeders are outliers — as we turn the corner into the glorious post-Labor Day world here on the Cape, with cooler nights and open parking lots, it’s time to get serious about getting out there to see migrating birds.

One advantage of this drought, at least for birding, is that low pond levels are exposing a lot of great habitat for certain shorebirds. Ponds that normally have very little exposed shoreline are currently rimmed with beaches and exposed mudflats, a boon to pond shore plants and some of the freshwater shorebirds. Check your local pond, especially ones with lilies and exposed mud, for Solitary, Spotted and Least Sandpipers, as well as less common fare like Pectoral Sandpiper. Don’t expect to see them without binoculars, as they will be almost invisible thanks to their camouflaged attire. Check the remaining water in these same ponds for Wood Ducks, who love shallow ponds with lots of floating vegetation.

Our bird banding station at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary opens tomorrow, but two stations are operating right now, Wing Island in Brewster and at the South Monomoy lighthouse, providing a window into the current state of songbird migration. Banding stations use panels of nearly invisible mist nets to briefly detain birds, collect some data, and send them on their way with a uniquely numbered leg band. The Monomoy station got their first ever Prothonotary Warbler this week, a bright yellow lightbulb of a songbird associated with southern swamps, along with both Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoos, the rare and difficult to identify Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, a Yellow-breasted Chat, and several species of warbler. At Wing Island they’ve had several species of warbler, including their earliest ever Blackpoll Warbler, a species that migrates from Alaska to Brazil by way of New England, and one we see more often in October.

Here at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay sanctuary, an annual pre-migratory phenomenon has begun — the flocking of the bluebirds. Inside the grassy pine woods of the campground and all along the adjacent sandplain grassland, look for groups of bluebirds that include a mix of recent fledglings and adults, mixed with Pine Warblers, who descend from the high trees to hop around in grasslands around now, plus Chipping Sparrow and other species. It’s not unique to here — look for these swirling, post-breeding flocks anywhere that pinelands meet grasslands.

From songbirds, to seabirds, to herons and egrets, with each passing day, bird migration is getting incrementally more serious here on the almost post-Labor Day Cape and Islands. So don’t wait — this is your chance to see all these flocking birds, now that many of those flocking tourists are gone.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.