Friday, September 19, 2008

Tips for finding fall warblers

The Lake Erie shoreline in northwestern Ohio is great for finding migrant songbirds in both spring and fall, but fall birding takes a slightly different approach. In spring, you can find most of the warblers and other migrants just by wandering along the Magee boardwalk and stopping where you see clusters of birders. In fall, the birders are less numerous and the warblers and other birds are less conspicuous.

Fall warblers are generally not singing, and they even seem to give fewer callnotes. Perhaps it's because they still have much of their journey ahead of them when they come through northern Ohio, and they're intent on feeding and fattening up for the next flight. With less of the flamboyant energy of spring, the birds are quieter and less noticeable.

In fall, even more than in spring, there's a tendency for the warblers to be in flocks. These flocks may be loosely constituted, but there may be anywhere from half a dozen to thirty or forty birds traveling in the same general area. In between flocks, you may not see anything at all. So if you're birding an area like the Magee boardwalk or any of the local trails, if you see one warbler, you should pause and observe the area for a while: there's a good chance that other warblers are nearby. Likewise, if you encounter chickadees, there may be warblers flocking with them. Today on the boardwalk, each time I found one or two warblers or chickadees, I wound up spending at least 15 minutes in that exact area, and each time I found several more warblers and other migrants with them.

Just as in spring, the birds concentrate where the food is, and insects make up much of their diet. Today the wind was a light breeze from the northeast, and there were no warblers at all on the north or east side of any woodlots I checked -- they were all on the south or west sides, out of the breeze, where presumably the insects were easier to find. If you don't find migrants right away, it's always a good idea to check the sheltered side of the woods. If you're out early on a chilly morning, the warblers are likely to concentrate on the east edge, on the first areas that the sun hits, because the insects will become active there first.

Right now the dogwoods have a lot of fruit on them. In the Magee area these are mostly Rough-leaved Dogwood, with abundant white berries, and these are very popular with certain birds such as vireos and thrushes. Spending some time near heavily fruiting dogwoods can provide you with great eye-level views of Red-eyed Vireos, Philadelphia Vireos, and Swainson's and Gray-cheeked Thrushes. Even warblers will feed on these berries, though they seem to pick at them rather than swallowing them whole most of the time. Today I watched a Blackpoll Warbler picking at one cluster of dogwood berries for more than two minutes.

Fall birding may take more patience, but in its own way it can be just as rewarding as spring birding, and it can increase our appreciation for the feats of migration performed by these small travelers.

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