The songbird migration has been slow this September. Usually, we see good numbers of warblers, vireos, flycatchers and other passerines by now. There haven't been any highlight days, despite what seems to be the right conditions for birds to be moving through. Maybe the conditions are so good that the birds just keep moving through and don't stop! Since many migrate at night, perhaps they just continue overhead and head farther south while conditions are good, without the need, nor the desire, to put down On Plum Island, the warblers have been sparse. We might see five or 10 species of warblers all day, but there is only one or two of each, and it is hard work. They are moving in the now dense foliage, and one is lucky to catch a glimpse of the tail, or the wings, or just the head, as they forage for food. The fall birds are, for the most part, silent, so locating them is so much more difficult than in spring when they are in full song. Many are also in either immature or fall plumage and, therefore, more difficult to identify.
We have been a bit luckier with the vireos. They are a bit larger and move a little more slowly. A couple, the warbling and red-eyed, have actually been singing. We've had many looks at red-eyed and brief looks at Philadelphia and warbling vireos. We did have great eye-level views of a yellow-throated vireo foraging in the Pines Trail on the refuge last Sunday. We missed seeing this bird in the spring, so it was definitely the highlight of an otherwise dismal day for finding songbirds.
Plum Island isn't alone in its lack of birds this fall. Doug Chickering of Groveland relates his experience at the Salisbury Beach State reservation the past few weeks:
"As soon as the kids returned to school and the Salisbury campgrounds relaxed into civility, Lois and I began visiting our favorite little migrant trap at the edge of the campgrounds, in the grove at the State Reservation. It is one of those places where hope always seems to win out over experience. We watched the weather; and every time we saw an apparent beneficial shift in isobars and winds, we made for the grove first thing the next morning.
"But like many others this fall, we have been disappointed by the absence of passerines. The place was often empty of anything but robins, catbirds and chickadees, and at times even they were few and far between. Where were the flycatchers? Where were the warblers and the sparrows? The grove can be a great place in the fall. We have turned up yellow-billed cuckoo more than once, and have found yellow-throated vireo and even — dare I mention its name — Connecticut warbler. What is happening?
"Of course the year hasn't been completely vacant. A couple of weeks ago, we arrived to discover a barred owl that was at first elusive and skittish and then settled down to be placid and cooperative. We were even able to successfully pass the word on to Peter and Faye Vale, who not only saw the owl but found a Philadelphia vireo to boot. But for the most part, the grove has been a disappointment.
"Therefore, this morning's cold front (Sept. 19) didn't fill us with any real enthusiasm and we started the day by seeing if we could find anything at the J.B. Little Road. It was a beautiful, crisp, cool autumn morning, and even though we came up practically empty (green heron, kingfisher and a mundane supporting cast), I couldn't help but note that this was a cold front that had come down and our thoughts turned back to the grove at Salisbury.
"Birding always teaches us the value of persistence, and we ended up by having the first good passerine day of the season. The best part of the Grove is when you actually see a bird, it is going to be one of the cherry sightings of the year, and today was no exception. A solitary vireo glowing in a splash of sunshine, a bright perched Lincoln's sparrow at eye level, just sitting there and occasionally adjusting position in the perfect light as Lois and I watched enraptured. Nothing better than a non-skulking Lincoln's sparrow in sharp and clean plumage. We also found a pair of Magnolia warblers still with strikingly yellow breast, a northern waterthrush, red-breasted nuthatch, a couple of pewees and a quartet of black-and-white warblers that were so close that on one occasion I could have reached out and plucked him off the bark.
"There was also the standard fall empidonax flycatcher species. Killer looks. A non-Traill's with a large eye-ring and a distinctive olive back. But the breast was plain light gray fading into white. Pretty active and, of course, silent as a tomb. Least? Acadian? Exotic? For me unknowable. No rarities to report. Maybe that will come later, but still the best passerine morning of the season. The grove giveth and the grove disappoints, but the grove cannot be ignored."
Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher's Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.