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Migration

Adult Common Loons Molting & Migrating

At this time of year, adult Common Loons are undergoing a partial molt, during which they transition from their striking black-and-white breeding plumage into their gray-and-white winter plumage. This transition typically begins with the feathers surrounding the bill.

Many adult loons have departed from their northern freshwater breeding lakes, heading for their coastal New England wintering grounds.  Juvenile loons linger, sometimes remaining on their natal or adjacent lakes until near freeze-up.  Once they arrive on their wintering grounds, they will remain there for the next two to four years before returning to their inland breeding grounds. (Photo: adult Common Loon in foliage-reflecting water)

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Monarch Roosts

Monarch migration is in full swing.  Some of the migrating butterflies from the Northeast travel as far as 3,000 miles to reach their winter destination in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico.  In addition to finding sources of nectar along their migration pathways to build their fat reserves Monarchs must also seek shelter at night, roosting on land when it cools down and they can no longer fly. 

It appears that roosting is critical for migrating Monarch survival.  Just before dark these solitary diurnal migrants gather in clusters called roosts. A roost can consist of just a few butterflies up to thousands clinging to leaves and branches on a single tree. Cedar, fir, and pine are common species of trees used for roosts, but deciduous trees are also used.

Most roosting trees are along a principal flyway, located in a cool, moist area, provide shelter from the wind and are near a source of nectar. Often roosts last for only a night or two but can last a week or two. Monarchs can but do not necessarily use the same resting sites year after year. It’s generally accepted that these roosts are an anti-predation tactic, employing the strategy of safety in numbers.  To see a map of documented 2021 roosts, go to Journey North’s site:  https://maps.journeynorth.org/map/?map=monarch-roost-fall&year=2021.

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Northern Shrikes Arriving

The Northeast loses a lot of songbirds to migration in the fall, but it gains a few as well, one of which is the Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor).   As days shorten and temperatures drop, this tundra-nesting bird migrates southward into southern parts of Canada and northern U.S., arriving in October and November on its wintering grounds. In some areas Northern Shrike movements and winter numbers have been associated with the movements of Snowy Owls and Rough-legged Hawks.

The Northern Shrike is highly unusual in that it is a predatory songbird. Birds, mammals and insects are preferred over nectar, nuts and seeds. During the winter it preys mainly on small mammals (voles, mice, shrews) and birds. The Northern Shrike often kills more prey than it can immediately eat or feed its young, storing the excess food to eat later when available living prey may be scarce. The manner in which it stores this extra food is what gave it the name “butcher bird;” it often impales prey on a thorn, broken branch or even barbed wire, or it wedges prey into narrow V-shaped forks of branches, where they hang until reclaimed by the shrike. (Photo by Mary Sue Henszey)

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White-crowned Sparrows Migrating

White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) breed north of New England and overwinter south of New England.  The only time we get to admire their elegant plumage is during migration, primarily in May and October. 

White-crowned Sparrows are strong migrators (A migrating White-crowned Sparrow was once tracked moving 300 miles in a single night.) but they do have to stop and refuel along the way.  Because they are now passing through New England, you may see what at first might appear to be a White-throated Sparrow, but is a White-crowned Sparrow.  Their bold black-and-white striped crowns are one quick way to tell one species from another. (Immature birds have brown and gray stripes.)  Look for them foraging in weeds along the roadside or in overgrown fields.  About 93% of their diet is plant material, 74% of which is weed seeds.

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Canada Goose Migratory Formation

“V’s” of migrating Canada Geese are a common sight and sound in the Northeast during October.  The inevitable question arises:  why fly in a V formation?  In part, because it conserves energy.  But exactly how does it do this?

As the lead goose flaps, it creates tiny vortexes (circular patterns of rotating air) swirling off its wings as well as into the space behind it.  The vortex behind a goose goes downward, while the vortexes on either side of its wings go up.  If a goose flies directly behind the goose in front of it, air will be pushing it down.  If it flies off to the outer side of the goose in front of it, air is pushing upward and the goose will get a slight lift, making flying easier.

Picture two geese flying behind and to the outer sides of the lead goose.  Additional geese, in order to avoid the vortex behind the lead goose as well as the vortexes directly behind the next two geese, will fly behind and to the outside of the wings of the two birds in front of them, getting a lift and forming a “V.” 

Because the lead goose has no vortex to get a lift from, it tires more easily than the other geese. It periodically falls back and is replaced by another goose in the formation. This cooperative process of taking turns leading the flock minimizes the need for the birds to stop and rest.  

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Snowy Owls Starting Their Return To The Arctic

Every year in North America some Snowy Owls migrate southward during Arctic winters while some remain in the Arctic.  (In some winters — not this one — we see large numbers, or irruptions, of young owls in the Northeast which is thought to be a result of food and weather conditions further north.)  Individuals that spend the winter in New England usually can be found near large, open terrain that resembles their Arctic breeding grounds. Agricultural fields, coastal dunes and airports provide them with an ample diet of small mammals and birds.  Overwintering Snowy Owls begin to head northward in March and April. Occasionally a few owls linger on wintering grounds well into spring and summer (records of Snowy Owls exist in May in Massachusetts and June in New Hampshire).

Much has been learned about the migratory flights of Snowy Owls due to satellite tracking. According to Birds of North America, in February 2012, a transmitter attached to a female at Logan Airport in Boston, MA tracked an owl to Nunavut, Canada. The owl migrated north along Hudson Bay’s eastern shore during spring migration and returned south along Hudson Bay’s western shore during the autumn migration. It eventually returned to Logan Airport the following November, having completed a 7,000 mile round trip.

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Red-winged Blackbirds Returning to Northern New England

Except for the coast, most of northern New England doesn’t see many Red-winged Blackbirds during the winter months.  Numbers usually start increasing the last week of February with males arriving before females.  In the fall it’s the reverse, with males departing after females.

Practically as soon as male Red-winged Blackbirds return, you can hear them singing and see them displaying as they claim their territories.  If you could tell the females apart, you might well recognize some of them, as research shows that nearly half of the females return to the previous year’s territory.

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Common Loons Migrating

Much has been learned about the fall migration of Common Loons in northern New England.  They are diurnal migrants, parents generally migrate first, young loons remain on the lakes where they were born or adjacent lakes until close to when the lakes freeze up, and the greatest number of fall migrating loons occurs in late October and the first half of November.

The very large loons in Maine, New Brunswick, and eastern New Hampshire do not migrate far and primarily over-winter in the Gulf of Maine, while smaller loons from other New England states and New York migrate to Long Island Sound south to New Jersey. Many loons migrate singly but group together on larger lakes referred to as staging areas. Overland migration altitudes range from a mile to a mile and a half, while over water loons often migrate within 300 feet of the surface.  One-and two-year old Common Loons remain throughout year on wintering sites. (Cornell’s Birds of North America)

(Photo of adult and juvenile Common Loons taken in early October, just as molting was beginning at the base of the adult’s bill. By December most adult loons have fully molted into their gray winter plumage.)

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Last of the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers Migrating

Most of us in northern New England are probably seeing the last of the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers that nested here this summer.   Unlike most species of woodpeckers (which are year-round residents), a majority of sapsuckers that breed this far north end up migrating further south; southern U.S. and Central America are where most of them overwinter. Females have been observed migrating before males, and spending the winter further south than males.  We don’t often see sapsuckers migrating, as they do so at night and are relatively quiet when flying.  Occasionally you may come upon one during the day resting motionless on a tree, or even briefly drumming.

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Lingering Great Blue Herons

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Most fish-eating birds that breed where most bodies of water freeze over in the winter migrate further south in the fall, including Great Blue Herons.  Movement of this large wading bird takes place largely from September to mid-October. According to Christmas Bird Count data, the Great Blue Heron has the widest wintering distribution of any heron species in North America.

While the number of Great Blue Herons in the Northeast is greatly diminished in November and December, it’s not uncommon to spot lingering birds at this time of year.  Come January, when most bodies of fresh water are inaccessible to herons, sightings become rare until they begin returning in March.

Where open water remains in the Northeast, those Great Blue Herons braving the cold continue to consume fish, insects, amphibians and crustaceans.  Small mammals, especially voles, and birds remain a warm-month delicacy, when mammal hair is cast in pellets and bones are digested.

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Semipalmated Plover Migration Winds Down

10-31-18 semi-palmated plover_U1A1025During the peak of their migration in the fall (August and September), Semipalmated Plover sightings occur inland but are especially concentrated along the East coast.  Sightings are decreasing now as we approach the tail end of their flight from their Arctic and sub-Arctic breeding grounds to their wintering grounds which range from the southern U.S. through southern South America.

In general, plovers (Charadriidae) are small to medium-size, plump shorebirds with long wings and short necks and rounded heads.  The Semipalmated Plover, during the breeding season, has a black crown, eye patch and single breast band.  These areas are brown in nonbreeding adults (pictured).

Fortunately, there is no evidence that the estimated breeding population of 200,000 birds is diminishing. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “The Semipalmated Plover is among the few plovers whose numbers are apparently increasing, perhaps owing to its versatility in food and habitat choice, its wide-spread coastal winter distribution, or its habitat expansion in the sub-Arctic as a result of disturbance by both humans and arctic geese.”

For those curious about this shorebird’s name, “semipalmated” in a wading bird’s name indicates that its toes are webbed for part of their length (barely detectable in photo, but if you look hard you’ll see partial webbing in the left foot).

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Dark-eyed Junco Numbers Increasing

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Although Dark-eyed Juncos can be found year-round in New England, their numbers increase dramatically at this time of year, and they become much more noticeable. In addition to our year-round residents, many individuals that have bred further north migrate to the Northeast and even further south to overwinter. For this reason they are sometimes referred to as “Snowbirds.” From late September through October their numbers build and remain high until next May, when many return to their Canadian breeding grounds.

During the winter Dark-eyed Juncos can often be found in flocks, hopping and scratching on the ground as they forage for the seeds that make up 75 percent of their diet. Their two-toned white and gray plumage, and their white outer tail feathers are distinctive.

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Broad-winged Hawk Migration Peaking

9-17-18 juv. broadwing_U1A7043The migration of raptors has begun, and one of the first species to migrate in the fall is the Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus). While it is quite secretive when nesting, it is one of the more conspicuous species of birds when migrating.  This is for two reasons. They are one of the few North American raptors that flocks during migration, and much of their migratory behavior is concentrated in the Northeast in a two-week period around the middle of September.

Migrating Broad-wings conserve energy by frequently soaring in thermals and mountain updrafts. Flocks of birds, or “kettles”, soar up the heated columns of air, peel off and glide to the next thermal where they repeat the process. Very little wing-flapping is necessary in order to cover a lot of ground. The flocks, or “kettles,” range from several individuals to thousands of birds (larger kettles generally occur nearer their Central and South America wintering grounds).

The number of birds migrating often grows following a cold front, when winds die down and thermals increase. Fall migration of Broad-wings in the Northeast is associated with good visibility, moderate favorable winds, high temperatures, and afternoons (vs. mornings). (Photo: juvenile Broad-winged Hawk)

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Green Herons Starting To Migrate

8-24-18 green heron2 20160916_0770Green Herons breed throughout the eastern half of North America.  After their nesting season is over they tend to wander, often to more favorable foraging areas. This dispersal merges gradually into a protracted fall migration for birds in the Northeast, beginning around the end of August, with most birds having left by mid-October.

Most Green Herons from eastern United States migrate south to winter along the Gulf of Mexico, Florida, Caribbean islands, Mexico, through Central America to northern South America.   We usually see our first Green Herons returning in mid-April, earlier than other herons.  This may be due to their crepuscular feeding habits, which gives them a longer span of time to feed each day.

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Eastern Gray Squirrels Swimming

e-gray squirrel swimming by Erin 2_H6A2563 copy (002)Imagine coming upon a stick floating in a large pond only to discover the “stick” had a head and tail and was making a beeline for the shore.  The fact that an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) had paddled half a mile to get from one shore to the opposite shore of a pond shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, as this rodent has a long history of migratory swimming behavior, but it’s such an incongruous and unexpected event that it made my companion and me initially question our eyesight and then laugh out loud.

Historical reports suggest there have been many massive Eastern Gray Squirrel migrations in the United States, beginning in 1749 in Pennsylvania.   Records show the state paid three cents for each squirrel killed; over 640,000 squirrels were turned in for bounty.  One migration from Wisconsin in 1842 lasted four weeks and involved a half billion squirrels. Because of the numerous squirrel migrations, John James Audubon was erroneously convinced that the squirrels on the move were a separate species from the Eastern Gray Squirrel and gave them the scientific name Sciurus migratorius. (This proved to be inaccurate.)

During the 1800’s, thousands of squirrels would periodically move en masse across roads, fields and forests, and swim across lakes and rivers (including the Mississippi and Connecticut Rivers) in an effort to disperse. The consensus is that these mass movements were a response to local food conditions. They occurred mostly during the month of September following a year in which there was a large production of food (acorns).

The most recent mass migration of Eastern Gray Squirrels in eastern U.S. occurred in 1968, when a bumper crop of acorns in 1967 was followed with a corresponding bumper crop of young squirrels in 1968. By fall, as the first litter of the year left the nest, there was a severe shortage of food. As a result, massive numbers of acorn-eating squirrels dispersed in search of food.

One Eastern Gray Squirrel swimming across a New Hampshire pond does not a migration make, but it might not be a bad idea to keep an eye out for excessive numbers of paddling squirrels and/or road-killed rodents come September. (Photo by Erin Donahue)

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Male American Redstarts

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Warblers — small, active, insect-eating birds — are often referred to as the “butterflies of the bird world” due to the striking breeding plumage of many of the males.  One warbler that’s hard to overlook due to its brilliant orange and black plumage is the male American Redstart.  Like most warblers, it is a very active feeder, flitting from branch to branch looking for insects.  However, it also occasionally feeds like a flycatcher — perching and flying out to capture insects in mid-air, giving you the opportunity to get a good look at it.

The breeding behavior of the American Redstart is of particular interest, in that not only is the male occasionally polygamous, as are many other bird species, the two females he mates with at the same time do not nest in the same territory.  The male holds two separate territories that can be separated by as much as a quarter-mile.  The male begins attracting a second female after the first has completed her clutch and is busy incubating the eggs.  Perhaps the bird world would benefit from a “Me Too” movement.

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A Vagrant Brant

12-1-17 pale-bellied brant 049A7777Brants are small geese that travel long distances (up to 3,000 miles) several thousand feet up in the air between their Arctic breeding grounds and their coastal wintering grounds. No other species of goose nests as far north, and few migrate as far. The subspecies that overwinters off the middle of the East Coast, the Atlantic or Pale-bellied Brant, typically migrates from northern Canada to James Bay, where it remains for several weeks building up fat reserves. From there most birds fly nonstop to their wintering grounds in Jamaica Bay and other nearby estuaries of greater NYC and New Jersey, arriving in late October and early November.

Occasionally migrating birds, often juveniles, veer a bit off course (often due to weather-related causes) and end up where they don’t belong. Brants are common winter residents in coastal areas during the winter, but are not often seen far from salt water. This fall a lone juvenile vagrant Pale-bellied Brant appeared one day on the shore of a lake in central Vermont, giving inlanders the opportunity to view a Brant up close. While adult birds have a very sophisticated mechanism for plotting their migration from one point to another and for getting back on course if they are displaced because of weather, first-year birds often lack this skill.

Had this Brant been blown off course in this manner 75 years ago, there would have been concern for its survival, as Brants used to feed almost exclusively on intertidal seagrass during the non-breeding season. However, in the 1930’s a disease devastated eelgrass and consequently the Brant population dropped. Brants that survived adapted to an alternative diet which included sea lettuce, saltmarsh grass and lawn grass, making it possible for a 21st century Brant to exist just fine in the interior of New England, at least long enough to refuel before continuing on its way.


Snow Geese Migrating

11-10-17 final snow geese2 049A7452The eastern population of Snow Geese, one of the most abundant species of waterfowl in the world, migrate in very large flocks from their high Arctic breeding grounds to their wintering grounds along the Atlantic coast during October and November. Their migration is characterized as a combination of long stopovers with rapid and distant flights between areas. Birds from the same breeding population use many of the same stopovers sites, or staging areas where they rest and refuel, each year. Here they forage and eat the stems, seeds, leaves, tubers and roots of grasses, sedges, rushes in addition to waste grains such as wheat and corn in fields where crops have been cut.

Most of the eastern Snow Geese stage on the St. Lawrence estuary and many then migrate over Lake Champlain and fly southward along the Hudson River to their wintering grounds along the east coast, where the highest numbers occur along the shore of Delaware Bay. Those of us lucky enough to live near a staging area keep our ears tuned this time of year for the sound of baying hounds, for that is what an approaching flock of thousands of Snow Geese sounds like. (Photo taken at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area, Addison, VT)


Hooded Merganser Numbers Increasing

10-23-17 hooded mergs 011The number of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) is beginning to build as their fall migration from eastern Canada breeding grounds to southeastern U.S. gets under way. Late migrants, Hooded Mergansers won’t reach the peak of their migration until mid-November. They will not completely vanish from sight, however, as many Hooded Mergansers remain in New England on open marshes, ponds, rivers and creeks where they can find fish and crustaceans to feed on throughout the winter.


Ruby-crowned Kinglets Migrating

10-13-17 ruby-crowned kinglet 049A6145The Ruby-crowned Kinglet is named after the male’s red patch on the top of its head, which is barely discernible (see photo) unless the bird is excited or agitated. Often the only glimpse you get of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet is the constant flicking of wings as it actively forages in shrubs and trees for insects or fruit. Keep an eye out for this tiny bird (one of North America’s smallest songbirds) as this is the peak of its fall migration from its breeding grounds in Alaska, northern New England and Canada to southern U.S. and Mexico.


Painted Ladies On Their Way

9-28-17 painted lady2 IMG_1979For the past few weeks we have been witnessing the migration of thousands of southward-bound orange butterflies, a vast majority of which are not Monarchs (although they are having a good year, too) but Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui). Both their large numbers and the length of time that they have lingered in the Northeast this fall are unusual.

This was a good year for Painted Ladies — they migrated north earlier than usual, arriving in mid-April, possibly giving them time to have an extra generation, reproducing twice instead of once during the summer. In addition, the unusual weather we’ve been having has not been great for migrating. The butterflies have spent a lot of time fueling up on nectar while waiting for a wind out of the Northeast to assist them in their flight to the Southwest. With the prevailing wind change we’re now experiencing, it’s likely many of them will resume their migration today.


Ospreys Migrating

email-osprey 014Adult female Ospreys begin their fall migration in August, before their young are completely independent. After females leave, males continue to feed this year’s young and don’t reach the peak of their migration until the middle of September. Ospreys tend to migrate during the day, except when crossing over large bodies of water, which they do at night. Unfortunately, the nocturnal flights of northeastern Ospreys over the Caribbean (a 25-hour nonstop flight) on their way to their wintering grounds in South America often coincides with the hurricane season. As treacherous as this is, 80 percent of adult Ospreys survive migration, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

 


Sapsuckers & Hummingbirds

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The Morse Code tapping of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers has just started reverberating in northern New England woodlands once again – a sure sign of spring. There is an interesting relationship between sapsuckers and hummingbirds, with hummingbirds reaping most of the benefits.   It is thought that the Ruby-throated Hummingbird may time its migration north to coincide with that of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in some areas. In northern New England, hummingbirds arrive on their breeding grounds about a month after sapsuckers, insuring that sapsucker-drilled sap wells will be waiting for them. The reason this is important is that these wells are an important source of nutrients (both sap and insects attracted to it) for hummingbirds as well as sapsuckers.  In addition, and not surprisingly, hummingbirds often place their nest near sap wells. This affinity for sap continues well past the nesting season – – hummingbirds have been observed following sapsuckers throughout summer days. (Photo:  male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker & male Ruby-throated Hummingbird)

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Wood Ducks Returning

4-7-17 wood ducks 288Among the first groups of birds to move north in the spring are waterfowl. Many ducks, geese, and swans begin migrating as soon as frozen lakes and marshes start to thaw. Although an occasional Wood Duck is spotted in northern New England during the colder months, most winter further south (band recoveries indicate that in eastern U.S. about one-third of Wood Ducks are permanent residents and the others are migratory). They begin to be seen in open water in February and March but it is April before their numbers really swell, and sometimes it seems that on every stream and in every flooded field you can find at least one pair. With their distinctive plumage, it’s hard to miss them, especially the males. Soon they will be seeking out natural cavities in trees, including Pileated Woodpecker holes, in which to nest.

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