Fox Sparrows are named for the red hue of their plumage, but their coloration varies and not all Fox Sparrows are as rusty red as those we see migrating in the spring and fall through New England. Many of these birds have spent the summer breeding in the boreal forests of northern North America, and are currently on their way to the southeastern U.S. to spend the winter. Most passed through the Northeast during October, but a few stragglers can still be seen under feeders, scratching in leaf litter for insects and seeds. Although the number of Fox Sparrows is relatively high and they aren’t a species of special concern, their population has declined by about 51% in the past 50 years.
During the first two weeks of October, south winds prevented migrating Monarchs from making a lot of progress on their flight southward. Cold fronts were weak during this time, and wind blew from the north infrequently. On Oct.12 this persistent weather pattern broke, headwinds subsided and thousands of Monarchs were seen migrating through Texas. By Oct. 20 the first Monarchs entered Mexico and by the 23rd the first butterflies had reached their wintering grounds. Follow their progress as they continue to stream across northern Mexico, headed for their sanctuaries, at http://www.learner.org/jnorth/maps/monarch.html.
The migration of amphibians from the woodlands where they overwinter to their breeding pools in March is a familiar spring phenomenon to most. However, some of these amphibians engage in a fall migration as well. Amphibians (and reptiles) need to find a good overwintering spot, where they won’t freeze. In some cases, that might be a few feet upstream or into a seepage area, and in others it is a few hundred yards uphill. The extent of the migration and the species participating vary in different parts of the state.
In western Vermont, Jim Andrews, Director of the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas(http://vtherpatlas.org), has observed Blue-spotted and Four-toed Salamanders moving down into wetlands in the spring, staying close to the wetland for moisture and feeding during the summer, and then moving uphill back to wintering areas in the fall. On the other hand, he has found that most Spotted and Jefferson Salamanders, as well as Wood Frogs, move down in the spring to breed, and then head back uphill in stages soon after they are done breeding.
Eastern Red-backed Salamanders (pictured) migrate as needed during the summer to maintain their body moisture, and in the fall, search for an animal burrow or crevice to hibernate in. Migration often occurs at night, while it’s raining, so as to prevent their skin from drying out. (Amphibians need to have moist skin because a large portion of the frog’s “breathing” occurs via oxygen diffusing through the skin. Oxygen will not diffuse through a dry membrane.) After the very dry summer we’ve had, a large number of amphibians were observed taking advantage of the recent rain and migrating.
After spending the winter along the Northeast coast, adult Common Loons are returning to their New England breeding ponds and lakes. Evidence indicates that photoperiod determines the general timing of their northern migration. Loons are well known for arriving at their breeding lakes soon after ice out (often returning when lakes are only partly open). How do they time their return so precisely? Loons often congregate in open bodies of water, including rivers, as they proceed northward. Once they approach their breeding grounds, reconnaissance flights are made from open water to territorial waters to see if the ice is out. Once it is, their migration continues.
Until the mid-1800s evening grosbeaks were considered uncommon to rare east of the Mississippi River. Today evening grosbeaks can be found year round in northern New England.
The eastern expansion of evening grosbeaks is mainly attributed to the accessibility of winter food in the form of box elder fruits. These trees were planted as windbreaks on the prairies, and as ornamentals in northeastern cities. Their seeds persist into the winter, allowing erratic winter flocks from the west to overwinter further east. Some overwintering birds remained here to nest, and thus began the expansion of their breeding range. Some ornithologists also believe that the recurring spruce budworm outbreaks in boreal forests facilitated eastward expansion by providing food in the summer months. Feeding birds became popular in the 1930’s, and may also have contributed to this range extension.
In a typical year in the Northeast, many birds migrate south of their breeding grounds to spend the winter. From March to early May, most of these individuals return to northern and western coniferous forests to breed and we have a greater chance of seeing them at feeders (along with hungry bears). (Photo: male evening grosbeak. Note bill is beginning to show the green tint it has during the breeding season.)
Hooded mergansers are present in most of the Northeast year round where there is open water, but many move south and southwest in winter. Some actually migrate north to spend winters in the Great Lakes and southern Canada. Their numbers swell in March and April, when migrants are passing through as well as returning. Often within days of when the ice goes out, this smallest (and arguably the most beautiful) of the three North American merganser species appears.
The courtship ritual of hooded mergansers takes place in groups of one or more females and several males. The males raise their crests, expanding the white patch, and engage in behavior known as head-throwing. They jerk their heads backwards until it touches their backs, while giving a frog-like croak. Females court by bobbing their heads and giving a hoarse quack.
Female breeding hooded mergansers select suitable cavities in both live and dead trees in which to nest. Stumps and snags near or in forested wetlands are their preferred nesting sites. Nest boxes are also used by this species, with those over or near water being the most sought after. After a month or a little more, the eggs hatch and downy, day-old chicks jump to the water (or ground) below, in response to their mother’s vocal urging.
Killdeer that breed in the southern half of the U.S. are year round residents, and do not migrate, but in the northern half of the U.S. killdeer are migratory. Their wintering range extends across the southern tier of states, through Mexico and the Caribbean and along the coastal regions of western South America (Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru). Killdeer that breed in the Northeast overwinter in Gulf and southern states that border the Atlantic Ocean.
The first returning killdeer have been sighted in Vermont. While the spring migration of killdeer is early, it is also prolonged, peaking in late March or early April in New England. Killdeer migrate during the day as well as at night, in flocks of 6-30 birds. When they stop to rest and/or forage, the birds typically do not go within 13 to 20 feet of each other, and are met with aggression from other flock members if they do. Once on their breeding grounds, killdeer are even less tolerant of each other. The courtship behavior in one pair often elicits aggressive behavior from neighboring pairs.
Now is the time to keep ears and eyes open for this inland-nesting shorebird. Corn fields, lawns and parking lots are a good place to start. For a perfect example of onomatopoeia, listen to Lang Elliott’s killdeer recording: http://www.langelliott.com/mary-holland/killdeer/ (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com)