The Spirit of Autumn

 

Black-throated Green warbler.  Photo by Dustin Welch.
Black-throated Green Warbler and birch catkins. Photo by Dustin Welch.
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It is a beautiful crisp October day, with the changing leaves standing out in stark contrast against the somber, gray sky.  As I stand in the driveway of the picturesque office of Willistown Conservation Trust, I am enchanted by the feathered feeding frenzy!  The trees are alive with rustling leaves that magically morph into bustling birds, flitting here and there to the rhythm of the Autumn spirit.  Two Blackpoll Warblers wizz by my head in an animated chase, enlivened by the crisp air in this moment and forgetting about the many more miles they have to go before their winter sojourn in the tropics.

Blackpoll warbler.  Photo by Blake Goll.
Blackpoll Warbler banded at Rushton this October. Photo by Blake Goll.

Many more warblers dance around in the upper reaches of the maple and hickory trees.  The commotion of these strangers in the neighborhood stirs up the curious residents- the chickadees and titmice- who join the feeding flock. Perhaps the migrant flock found the resident chickadees and titmice first since these are the ones to trust when it comes to knowing where the best food sources are and where the predators are.  Migrant flocks of birds are quite cunning like that.  They must be. Their lives depend on it.

Tap. Tap. Tap tap-tap tap. Tap.  My ears lead my eager eyes to a medium-sized woodpecker skirting its way up a dead tree trunk.  The October shadows obscure the bird’s coloring from my view.  Could it be a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker!?  There have been many reports of these handsome migrants in the area!

Young male American Goldfinch at Rushton this October.  Photo by Blake Goll.
Young male American Goldfinch at Rushton this October. Photo by Blake Goll.

Now my eyes are drawn to the Rudbeckia triloba (or Brown-eyed Susan) in the front bed of the office.  Several flowers are nodding toward the earth and others bouncing up and down wildly under the weight of wild canaries!  These are the resident goldfinches with their young of the year, voraciously harvesting the seeds of this wonderful native plant.  I look up to my right where I see more movement in the willowy River birch from which a feeder hangs.  More goldfinches are pecking at the birch catkins to extract nutritious seeds even as the bird feeder sways enticingly beneath them, filled with hulled sunflower seeds.  You just can’t beat the opulent menu that nature offers for birds this time of year!

Rudbeckia triloba at WCT headquarters
Rudbeckia triloba at WCT headquarters

Looking out across the Trust’s native wildflower meadow, I see more old seed heads from the retired perennials bobbing up and down and small figures swooping around the golden grasses and diving in amongst the gray and amber stalks.  I don’t grab my binoculars because I want to experience the whole of this pulse, rather than pick out the individual birds in this moment.  I know there are mixed warblers, sparrows and more goldfinches out there in the meadow, and I am content to be wrapped up in the spirit of Autumn with child-like glee.

Common Yellowthroat. Photo by Mike Rosengarten
Common Yellowthroat. Photo by Mike Rosengarten.

And I think to myself, what a wonderful landscape for these deserving creatures to relish.  Our meadow will be mowed in early spring to keep the woody growth and invasive plants at bay, but for now its unmowed glory is a paradise providing shelter, seeds, insects and berries for countless small animals and birds.  The insects themselves can find solace here; who knows how many praying mantis egg cases, underground bee burrows and silken cocoons are hidden safely amongst the leaf litter, ready to emerge in the new year and pass on their small but significant life force.

Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar on Witch Hazel.  Photo by Mike Rosengarten
Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar on Witch Hazel. Photo by Mike Rosengarten

As I’m again enjoying the goldfinches feasting in the birch, a lovely Hermit Thrush silently enters the scene like an apparition and perches gracefully on a branch, gently and diagnostically bobbing its fox-red tail up and down to that same infectious pulse that seems to be rippling through this large flock of migrants – and now my heart.

This is the excitement that can come of a typical cloudy October day, when one simply tunes into the cycles of nature.  Someone once told me,”never despise the day of ordinary things.”  I say, when you invite birds and nature into your daily routine, the ordinary day becomes rare.

Hermit Thrush.  Photo by Mike Rosengarten
Hermit Thrush. Photo by Mike Rosengarten.

All of us banders at the Rushton banding station know this to be true.  This fall season has been an exciting one with great species diversity (20 species one day!) and satisfactory numbers of migrants.  The most we had in one day were 83 birds back in September when the Gray Catbirds were still going strong.

Now the catbird flow has tapered off, and the sparrows have entered the stage in full force including Lincoln’s, Swamp, Song, White-throated and even a Savannah!  Field sparrows passed through earlier this fall.

The stream of warblers has also been slowing down, although last week we did catch a Magnolia Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler , Blackpoll Warbler and the usual Common Yellowthroats.  This week’s warblers included Black-throated Blue, Magnolia, American Redstart and first of the season Yellow-rumped (Myrtle).

Wood thrushes have all passed through and have been replaced by Swainson’s Thrush, a few Gray-cheeked Thrush and tons of American Robins.  We are expecting Hermit Thrushes, oodles of kinglets and loads more White-throated Sparrows to hop into our nets soon, followed by juncos and a Fox Sparrow or two to round out the season.

Noteworthy flyovers have included two regal Bald Eagles and a very mysterious Common Raven flying Southwest as it issued its guttural croaking call.  Blue- headed Vireos serenaded us with their slow, playful song from the tops of the trees today.  In the predawn, Bobolinks were heard over the farm on September 30th and an American Woodcock was heard one morning in mid-October.  The Great Horned Owl sang to us many mornings during net setup.

People visitors, eager to see and learn about these migrating wonders, have been flocking to the banding station as usual.   Visitors included the Birding Club of Delaware County, representatives from the Academy of Natural Sciences, businesses, Junior Birders, elementary school students and Universities like Villanova and UPenn.  We even have a UPenn student analyzing stopover ecology data this season.  This pertains to the timing and rate of weight gain in migrants during their stay at Rushton before continuing their migratory journeys.  This type of data is revealed by same-season recaptures of birds.

Enjoy the following photo journal of the season highlights so far.  Pretend you are birding!  Hope to see you out there at Rushton (Tuesday and Thursday mornings through the end of October).

There’s a lot going on in the woods,

Blake

Eastern Screech Owl caught during the first week of migration banding in August.
Resident Eastern Screech Owl caught during the first week of migration banding in August.
Eastern Screech Owl caught during the first week of migration banding in August
Resident Eastern Screech Owl caught during the first week of migration banding in August.
Hatching year Chestnut-sided Warbler at Rushton at the end of August.
Hatching year Chestnut-sided Warbler at Rushton at the end of August.
Hatching year male Indigo Bunting at Rushton end of August.  You can see some feathers coming in on his wing.
Hatching year male Indigo Bunting at Rushton end of August. You can see some feathers growing in on his wing (if you click on the picture to enlarge it).
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in August at Rushton
Worm-eating Warbler in August at Rushton.
Yellow-bellied flycatcher in August at Rushton
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in August at Rushton.
Black-throated Blue Warbler (a hatch year male) in September Photo by Jessica Shahan
Black-throated Blue Warbler (a hatch year male) at Rushton in September. Photo by Jessica Shahan.
Cedar Waxwing (Hatch year female).  Photo by Jessica Shahan
Cedar Waxwing (hatch year female) at Rushton in September. Photo by Jessica Shahan
Red-eyed Vireo with bulging fat (the orange color).  Birds must carry fat in order to migrate.  A fat bird is a more successful bird!
Red-eyed Vireo with bulging fat (the orange color). Birds must carry fat in order to migrate, and it’s one important piece of data we collect. A fat bird is a more successful bird!
Canada Warbler in September at Rushton
Canada Warbler in September at Rushton.
Nashville Warbler at Rushton in September
Nashville Warbler at Rushton in September.
Ovenbird at Rushton in September.  Photo by Jessica Shahan
Ovenbird at Rushton in September. Photo by Jessica Shahan
Young male Connecticut Warbler at Rushton in September. Photo by Gary Stolz
Young male Connecticut Warbler at Rushton in September. Photo by Gary Stolz
Young female Black-throated Green Warbler at Rushton in September for the Junior Birding Open House
Young female Black-throated Green Warbler at Rushton in September for the Junior Birding Open House.
Eager Junior Birders and families crowded around the banding table at Rushton in September during the Open House
Eager Junior Birders and families crowded around the banding table at Rushton in September during the Open House.
Gray Catbird at Rushton in September.  Notice the noticeably browner feathers on the wings compared the the grayer ones next door?  The brown feathers are juvenal and the gray ones are adult, so we know this bird was hatched this year.
Gray Catbird at Rushton in September. Notice the noticeably browner feathers on the front of the wings compared to the grayer ones further back? The brown feathers are juvenal and the gray ones are adult, so we know this bird was hatched this year.  This contrast in ages of feathers is what we call a molt limit.  This is one way to age birds in the hand (and in the field).

 

Male American Redstart at Rushton in September
Male American Redstart at Rushton in September.
Adult female Eastern Towhee at Rushton this October
Adult female Eastern Towhee at Rushton this October.
Lincoln's Sparrow at Rushton in September
Lincoln’s Sparrow at Rushton in September.
Hatching year female Purple Finch at Rushton in September.  A molty mess!
Hatching year Purple Finch at Rushton in September. A molty mess!
Male Northern Cardinal at Rushton in October.  Notice his flight feathers in molt!
Male Northern Cardinal at Rushton in October. Notice his flight feathers in molt!
Eastern Phoebe at Rushton in October.  Photo by Blake Goll
Eastern Phoebe at Rushton in October. Photo by Blake Goll
Measuring wing of Red-eyed Vireo in October at Rushton
Measuring wing of Red-eyed Vireo in October at Rushton.
Boy releasing Carolina Chickadee in who doesn't quite realize she's free yet!
Boy releasing Carolina Chickadee who doesn’t quite realize she’s free yet!
Comparing the wings of two Red-bellied Woodpeckers in October at Rushton.  The one on the left is an "After Second Year" bird with much darker primary coverts than the one of the right (a hatching year bird).
Comparing the wings of two Red-bellied Woodpeckers in October at Rushton. The one on the left is an “After Second Year” bird with much darker primary coverts than the one of the right (a hatching year bird).
Bill deformity in Gray Catbird at Rushton in October
Bill deformity in Gray Catbird at Rushton in October.  Photo by Blake Goll
Young student releasing a Black-throated Blue Warbler at Rushton in October
Young student releasing a Black-throated Blue Warbler at Rushton in October.
Male Sharp-shinned Hawk at Rushton in October
Male Sharp-shinned Hawk at Rushton in October.
Hatching year female Northern Flicker at Rushton in October
Hatching year female Northern Flicker at Rushton in October.
Yellow Palm Warbler at Rushton in October
Yellow Palm Warbler at Rushton in October.  Excuse us for not preening that one nape feather back into place!
Male Black-and white Warbler at Rushton in October
Male Black-and white Warbler at Rushton in October.  Photo by Blake Goll
Gentleman with Gray Catbird before release at Rushton.
Gentleman with Gray Catbird before release at Rushton.
House Finch (male) at Rushton in October
House Finch (male) at Rushton in October.  Photo by Blake Goll
Carolina Wren at Rushton in October
Carolina Wren at Rushton in October.  Photo by Blake Goll
Savannah Sparrow at Rushton in October.  Photo by Blake Goll
Savannah Sparrow at Rushton in October. Photo by Blake Goll
Young female Wilson's Warbler at Rushton in October.  Photo by Blake Goll
Young female Wilson’s Warbler at Rushton in October. Photo by Blake Goll

 

 

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