Late migrating birds are in the fall skies

Snow Bunting
Snow Bunting

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 Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. She lives here in Cook County and joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome back, Chel.

 
Anderson: Hello, Jay.
 
It seems like we should be getting close to the end of the bird migration, so who’s coming through now?
 
Anderson: Yeah, we are winding down. It’s been a great season as always to be watching birds and most of our songbirds have gone by. We have bid farewell; the woods will be very, very silent compared to the summertime.
 
Except for the nuthatches and chickadees.
 
Anderson: Yes, right. It won’t be absent, it won’t be totally silent, but this is the time of year when we’re entering what I think of as the “deep quiet” of our year. It’s not, like, without sound, but it’s pretty different and something to be enjoyed and appreciated. Not everywhere can one enjoy quiet. So, most of the songbirds have departed and you might still see some flocks of juncos, dark-eyed juncos flapping around here and there, maybe a few Lapland long-spurs, flocks of those still showing up. They’ve been pretty abundant in town and down along the shore and open spaces. They are birds of wide open spaces, so that’s where we tend to see them. And coming on now, and continuing especially for awhile if we don’t have snow are the snow buntings, which are always a real joy to see, aren’t they?
 
Oh, yeah, especially when you’re driving down the road and they fly up in flocks all around you. I think we’ve all had that experience.
 
Anderson: Yeah, I hope so. Well, I suppose it can be annoying if you’re trying to get somewhere in a hurry, but they are just beautiful. They’re a beautiful, warm brown and white with bright, white wing flashes when they fly, and they go around in small flocks usually, and yeah, just go ahead down the road and lead the way. It’s very, very beautiful to watch.
 
Now, birds like chickadees and nuthatches and blue jays, for example, they stick around.
 
Anderson: Yeah, they do stick around. There are movements and more localized migrations of birds moving around and setting up for the winter. Birds don’t stay necessarily right in the same place at every season of the year. And, of course, some birds that stay in more social groups, they’re sorting things out amongst each other and figuring out how they’re going to work their terrain over the course of the winter. So, there are movements going on even with the birds that stay here.
 
What about the big birds like geese and loons?
 
Anderson: Geese and loons, you know, there could still be the odd flock of geese that will be flying over. Loons should be gone by now, there may be the odd young bird that was maybe late in being born this summer and is taking longer to kind of get ready and be physically able and capable of taking off, but they want to get out, of course, before the lakes start to freeze. Most adult loons would be gone by now. There might still be the occasional group of swans going by, but probably most common now and what’s peaking right now in terms of migration are the large raptors. So, the red-tailed hawks, the rough-legged hawks, the northern goshawks, the occasional golden eagle and eagles, bald eagles. These are the raptors that, their numbers, in terms of the fall migration, peak at this time in the migration. So, these are still great times to be out at those places where thermals are generated on a sunny day to be looking for the big raptors. So, that’s definitely worth doing. The other thing related to the fall migration that I don’t think I’ve mentioned earlier is that fall, like any migration time, is when we sometimes see very uncommon things. And, I haven’t made the time to stay really in touch with the details of that this year, but I did hear a couple local reports on a black-billed magpie in the county this year, so that’s a fun thing to think about. That’s normally a much more western bird that, I don’t know, somehow got off on a tangent and was here for awhile. The other thing is to look at this time of year for waterfowl, especially sea ducks, out on Lake Superior. So, things like oldsquaws and scoters; these are things that we might see anytime now and in to different parts of the winter. So, these are birds that are from the far north and who come down and end up on Lake Superior, and they’re always fun to see. So, it’s a good time of year to be looking for the odd thing that might show up.
 
But, bald eagles and some owls, they stay around?
 
Anderson: Yes, and some birds, like bald eagles are a good example, will only go as far as they need to go. So, even snow buntings; they won’t stay right here, but they’re going to go only as far as they need to go to have a reliable food supply.
 
So, that would apply to these odd or infrequently seen seabirds, too?
 
Anderson: Right, yeah, as long as they can keep themselves going, they’re going to be OK, because they can handle the colder temperatures. But, it’s that food supply that’s really governing where and how far they go. So, yeah, we’re going to see eagles around here and maybe they’ll move, depending on our winter, down closer to Duluth and a little further south initially, and then show up again in February. Or maybe they’ll just be here right along, depending on how it goes.
 
Well, with some of those ducks you were talking about, I don’t think I’ll have a problem finding anything in Lake Superior.
 
Anderson: I bet you’re right.
 
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks again for helping us understand what’s going on around us and particularly with the end of the bird migration.
 
Anderson: Sure. 

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