September has just past and we have started out in the grand month of October. The switch of months marks a milestone in the bird migration. Most of the strictly insect-eating birds migrate out of the province during September. The warblers, flycatchers, vireos and others are mostly gone now. The tougher members of this group like the yellow-rumped warbler, palm warbler and orange-crowned warbler will still be with us for a while as will stragglers from September.
The sparrows that have been sitting back relaxing now begin to stir. It is their turn to put their travel plans into action. They cannot stay here for the winter. They need a safe place where they will be comfortable during the darkest, coldest months of the year. Tradition ingrained in their genes after many hundreds or thousands of generations of successful members of their species tells them where to go to survive. It is automatic now. But they have to be in good shape to make the flight. That is what the sparrows have been doing since late summer. They have been feeding constantly and stocking up of fuel resources. They are in the best shape of their lives. They are ready. The time has come.
Sparrows are seed-eaters in the fall and winter. They are generally bigger and physically tougher against the elements than the warblers. They can withstand cooler temperatures and will not have to migrate as far south. Still it is not exactly a walk in the park to fly from our province to the middle or southern United States to find their winter resort. The distance requires the same finely tuned navigational skills as the warblers and allies that migrated to more tropical locations.
Sea ducks such as the scoters, long-tailed ducks and eiders start appearing around the Thanksgiving weekend. The first arrivals are a novelty but they will be common fare for the birder over the next six months.
The common sparrows of Newfoundland and Labrador are the white-throated sparrow, swamp sparrow, fox sparrow, savannah sparrow and Lincoln’s sparrow. Sparrows of different species flock together in roving groups searching for seeds among the weeds and trees. Each has a slightly different expertise with their own habitat but not so different that they cannot work together in the same flock prior to migration. There is safety in numbers. More eyes on the outlook for hawks allow the sparrows more quality feeding time.
Waterfowl also take to the migratory skies during October. As they get frozen out of the northern locations new birds populate the southern areas. Rather unusual for the St. John’s area is a flock of 30 Canada geese that has stopped over at Virginia Lake. Geese generally avoid populated areas in Newfoundland and Labrador because they are popular among hunters. The geese are safe as long as they stay within the confines of St. John’s. There is an unusual goose among the flock, quite unusual in fact. It is a hybrid Canada goose x white-fronted goose. Such hybrids are rare in nature but do happen. The deed could have occurred in west Greenland where Canada geese are reportedly moving in and taking over white-fronted goose nesting territories. Sounds like a story from the Viking sagas but in reverse direction.
Sea ducks such as the scoters, long-tailed ducks and eiders start appearing around the Thanksgiving weekend. The first arrivals are a novelty but they will be common fare for the birder over the next six months. I am currently on a vessel on the eastern Grand Banks where fall migration can also been seen in action. Most impressive are the flocks of great shearwaters heading south. They collect in flocks of 20 to 200 birds. As if held together with bungee cords they move as a tight unit changing shape from a round ball to an elongated oval while never being more than a couple wing spread lengths away from the bird beside them.
The birds hold their wings in gliding position, rarely flapping yet the whole mass moves forward at a high rate of speed. It is poetry in motion. The great shearwaters are heading to nesting grounds on the Tristan da Cunha Islands in the South Atlantic. They will be nesting while we are celebrating Christmas. Meanwhile dovekies, also known as the bullbird, are arriving on the Grand Banks to spend the winter after a summer nesting on Greenland thallus slopes.
Shorebirds are still in migration but the number of species is down. Greater yellowlegs, white-rumped sandpipers, sanderlings, dunlin and semipalmated plover are among the dominant species in October. Hawks, crows, blue jays, American pipits and horned larks are also in migration through October. The first snow buntings have arrived. In week or so the first of the Iceland gulls will be here.
October is the golden month for fall migration. The land is burning up with warm fall colours. The last leg of fall migration is a strong one.
Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org