In technical birding terms, September was a dud. Well, maybe not entirely, but in terms of significant flights of warblers, vireos and other long-distance migratory songbirds that I hold so dear, it was disappointing.
Each year, I have become more and more convinced that southbound migrants headed for Latin America tend to overshoot Park Rapids, unless an unfavorable weather system intervenes during the night flight and causes a premature fallout.
Hopefully, some of you had better luck, but I saw virtually nothing in the way of a fallout around my property and other sites I visited. This contrasts with many observations by birders recording migrant flocks in the Twin Cities and south. I’m of the opinion now that the spring migration has a much greater chance of producing a good fallout than the fall migration around here. We shall see as time goes on.
That having been said, there was one very unusual movement of a species that is an irregular migrant to the southern U.S. – the purple finch. This finch is a regular breeder in our area and sometimes spends the winter as well. Most of you who know birds are familiar with it as a feeder bird preferring sunflower seeds.
This September, our one sunflower seed feeder was attended daily by up to a dozen or more purple finches, virtually all in the brown and white, sparrow-like, plumage that is typical of adult females and juveniles. Such numbers are very unusual at this time of year and are paralleled by similar observations across the entire eastern U.S., including latitudes well south of where one would expect to see the species at all so early.
I suspect that almost all of these birds, here and elsewhere, are juveniles born this summer. This suggests that there was a bumper crop of young produced this year across the northern U.S. and Canada and that they are moving south earlier than normal. There is information from Canada about a spruce budworm outbreak this summer in eastern Canada. When this has happened in the past (no major outbreaks in 50 or more years), a few nesting bird species feasted on the caterpillars and had great reproductive success as a result. A few of these species were Cape May and bay-breasted warblers and evening grosbeaks. The numbers of purple finches here in September could be evidence that their populations have benefited from new spruce budworm infestations in Canada and the young birds are flooding south.
Apart from this, we are now seeing the expected influx of normal fall short-distance migrants (those that winter in the southern U.S.). Among these are white-throated sparrows (first flocks in my area on Sept. 23), yellow-rumped warblers, northern flickers, blue jays and dark-eyed juncos (first on Sept. 30).
Flickers are large woodpeckers, as comfortable on the ground as on trees. Look for their large white rump as they flush from the roadside.
Other species to look for are Lincoln’s and Harris’ sparrows. Check your field guide for these two – the dainty Lincoln’s can be tricky to separate from the common song sparrow, but the Harris’ is large and unique. Now is definitely time to spread millet on the ground to attract these mainly ground-feeding species. Harris’ like more open country while Lincoln’s are more comfortable at the forest edge. Good birding to all!
Marshall Howe is a retired biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He specialized in bird population studies. Howe has been a Park Rapids resident since 2010.