For me, this has been a very disappointing September, birdwise.
Flocks of warblers and other insectivorous species I had expected to see simply didn’t materialize on our property (and dealing with the muddy aftermath of a new well hasn’t left me much time to bird elsewhere!).
It’s possible that many of the migrants simply overflew this region. Thinking ahead to who may be arriving next, my thoughts turned to kinglets.
Our two species, the ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, should be coming through from mid-September to mid-October and can be quite common, especially the ruby-crowned. Kinglets often mix with other species, like warblers, but they’re smaller, only about two-thirds the size of a chickadee.
But, even though very dull-plumaged, they’re easily distinguished from all other species by their habit of constantly flitting their wings nervously as they forage through the tree branches. Even without binoculars, this habit makes them stand out at a considerable distance. This got me thinking more generally about the importance of behavioral characteristics as a supplement to static pictures in a field guide to help birders identify their target. Behaviors are often diagnostic in themselves.
Here are a few other examples of behaviors that can cinch, or at least narrow down, identification. When you think you see an eagle at a distance, how can you be sure it’s an eagle rather than the only slightly smaller turkey vulture? Simple. Bald eagles soar smoothly with their wings held horizontally. Turkey vultures hold their wings in a shallow V and often tilt from side to side as they maneuver toward aromas of a rotting carcass. You can see these differences a mile away.
Another example from the raptor group is the accipiters (mainly Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks). Their shape, short wings and long tails, are important clues, but add in their flight pattern of several short flaps followed by a sail, and you know it’s almost certainly an accipiter (distinguishing between Cooper’s and sharp-shins, though, is another story – good luck with that!).
Three other examples come readily to mind. The nuthatches are the only species that prefer to go down the trunk or feeder head first.
With a little practice, woodpeckers as a group are recognizable in flight because of their deeply undulating flight, as opposed to the flat or herky-jerky flights typical of most other species. What’s that drab, medium-sized species perched in a vertical posture? Could very well be a flycatcher if it periodically soars out a catch an insect; and, if it bobs its tail continuously while perched, it is certainly an eastern phoebe, the only flycatcher in our area that does this.
So be sure to take note of behavior as well as size and color pattern to help you narrow down the identity of species. Sometimes it is the real key.
Outlook: By now or very soon, various sparrows and juncos should make their appearance. Spread millet on the ground to attract these species into identification range.
Enjoy your autumn birding!
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.