It’s hard to avoid the subject of migration this time of year. Each week, perhaps each day brings new species leaving, arriving, or passing through this avian crossroads of an archipelago we all inhabit. Whether you are a connoisseur of the showy wading birds, an aficionado of the summer seabirds, or a fancier of waterfowl, there is something for everyone in mid-September. Unless of course, you don’t like wildlife, in which case you should probably switch to sports talk radio for a few minutes.
Last week I carried on about hummingbirds and their migration, but I was apparently a week early. The first of the rare hummingbirds Cape Cod is famous for arrived over the last week. This individual was a one-day-wonder as we say, briefly visiting a house not far from mine in East Harwich last Friday. This house has hosted so many rare hummingbirds over the last few years that I’m starting to think the owner raises them in a greenhouse on-site, but maybe I’m just jealous. This bird, likely a Rufous Hummingbird that got lost on its way from the Pacific Northwest to Western Mexico, could be anywhere today, so keep an eye at your feeder. He or she will be sporting some rufous tones on the flanks and base of the tail, which would be absent on your usual Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, many of which are still around. I recommend keeping your feeders cleaned and filled into late November to catch these wandering vagrants who show up without fail every fall.
While it’s easy to see that your hummingbirds aren’t coming anymore, September songbird migration can be subtle. Unlike in spring, birds are relatively silent and often in more somber non-breeding plumages, like the notoriously difficult “confusing fall warblers” of the old Peterson guides. And until the cold fronts get stronger next month, many pass by well to our west, giving us less to work with. Finding them often involves a bit of dumb luck, or familiarity with the chip notes and flight calls they often give, like the sweet chip note of the American Redstart who’s been frequenting Wellfleet Bay sanctuary the last couple of weeks.
A visit to the sanctuary may also reward you with some other scarce migrants, like the Olive-sided Flycatcher that has been sallying forth from isolated treetops this week, or the silent, furtive Veery I saw feeding on pokeweed fruit outside our staff entrance on Monday. The Veery, a thrush that breeds in swampy woods off Cape, is always hard to come by around here. By way of a bird-guy confession, I have to admit that I misidentified this bird as a much rarer Gray-cheeked Thrush for a full half-hour until I examined my photos. In my experience, the birder’s brain sees what the birder’s heart desires, but cameras seldom lie.
Speaking of pokeweed, there is no better late summer and fall bird food – pulling it up from your yard is tantamount to snatching food from the mouths of hungry migrant birds. Ok, that’s a little dramatic, but you should definitely leave one or two where you can watch the parade of birds that visit them, from bluebirds and orioles to flickers and flycatchers. A sunny mix of pokeweed, seed-rich Evening Primrose, and tall grasses is like a bird buffet in fall, particularly when oaks and cherries intertwined with fruiting Virginia Creeper are nearby.
The combination of good weather, less people traffic, and more bird traffic makes September one of the best times to get out and enjoy bird migration. Joining a Mass Audubon, Cape Cod Bird Club, or other organization’s walks can help you sort through those confusing fall songbirds. And don’t forget your camera, in case, like me, your birding heart gets ahead of your birding brain.