In my ever humble opinion, October is the best month to witness bird migration on the Cape and islands. While migration has been revving its metaphorical engine since July, October is when it starts to peel out and leave skid marks. Warblers and shorebirds are still on the move, and are now joined more and more by sparrows, seabirds, and assorted other migrants arriving from all directions. So what is it about this month that brings all the birds?
For one, there are simply more birds in fall – some bird populations may be at least double or triple what they were in spring thanks to all the chicks hatched and fledged this summer. And those dopey young birds have a way of blundering their way into weird places, meaning we are more likely to get vagrants from other parts of the world now.
On top of that, migrants hang around longer in fall. In spring, birds are motivated to get to their breeding grounds tout de suite, so they pretty much book it. But in fall, they take a more leisurely approach, staying longer at their migration stopovers to fatten up and wait for just the right winds. This means that birds potentially accumulate as the fall progresses, increasing your chances of finding things with each passing day, and especially with each passing weather front. A good example of a long-staying bird is the American Avocet still lingering at Forest Beach in Chatham. This bird showed up in August and is still hanging around. Meanwhile, other birds have also been accumulating around it - during its tenure, the number of Marbled Godwits, another rare shorebird delighting birders at Forest Beach, has gone from three to six.
So where should you be looking for this bountiful harvest of fall birds? As the weather gets cooler and insect activity starts to decline, birds will be keying in on sunny, open places rich with food in the form of insects and fruit. Consider this my annual reminder to bird messy weedy places this time of year, like community gardens and publicly accessible farms with lots of seedy old flower heads, rotting vegetables, and compost piles, plus a lot of sunlight. Old bogs, gravel pits, and “stump dumps”, those places where you are allowed to dump brush, are all excellent fall birding spots, and likely places to find scarce and sought after migrants like Dickcissels, Blue Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, and Clay-colored Sparrows. Such places tend to have a lot of wild food as well, including under appreciated plants like pokeweed, Virginia creeper, evening primrose, and even ragweed, all of which feed many, many migrant birds.
Don’t forget the beaches and marshes of course. While shorebird numbers are declining daily as they move on to wintering grounds in the Caribbean or South America, our beaches can still hold surprises well into the fall. Right now, record numbers of Black Skimmers are showing up on bay side beaches, including an amazing 25 seen at Chapin Beach in Dennis last week, and 20 more at Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture sanctuary in Barnstable. These represent all time high counts for Barnstable County. You’re more likely to see this southern seabird on a Sanibel sandbar than Sandy Neck, but something has brought these birds into the bay in recent weeks. The Edgartown hosts the state’s only colony of breeding skimmers, but they would likely just head south from the Vineyard rather than hook north around the Cape and into the bay. But what do I know – I’m a biologist, not an avian travel agent.
There’s a lot more going on in the bird world right now than the few small scraps I’ve tossed you here. So grab your binoculars, your camera, and your smartphone and get out there to enjoy October in all its birdy glory. The “leaf peepers” can have Vermont - here on the Cape and Islands, October is for the feather peepers.