Appreciating the wonders of fall migration, the beauty of subtle plumage and all

There are plenty of aspects of autumn that put it on par with the showier spring months, even when the birds aren't as "handsome."

“The Yellow-rumped Warbler is really a handsome bird in spring.” These were my words to a group of 11 who had gathered for Saturday’s Chicago Ornithological Society field trip to Big Marsh. We were gazing at a Yellow-rumped Warbler in fall plumage, likely a drab immature or female bird.

“I think this one is pretty handsome now,” quipped a trip attendee in response to me. And she was right. I’d fallen into the trap of suggesting that spring birds—often male birds—are somehow superior to their less colorful immature and female counterparts, or even the fall versions of themselves. Indeed, there is a whole movement afoot to recognize female birds, which have been victims of bias and have been misunderstood for decades.  

Fall migration is often viewed as secondary to spring migration. This, of course, depends on your point of view. There are some aspects of fall migration that are distinct from spring migration: it lasts longer, birds are quieter (no need to sing for mates), their feathers are less colorful and there is a surfeit of drab hatch-year birds. To describe it as “fall” migration is even questionable: birds are on the move in August and even earlier. But there are other aspects of fall migration that are attractive as well—just like spring.

This page in Roger Tory Peterson’s seminal bird guide, titled “Confusing fall warblers,” exemplifies fall birding, however. It makes it appear mind-numbingly dull:

Author and illustrator Rosemary Mosco puts it this way. These birds are almost as confounding as an M.C. Escher drawing at this point in the year.

The time period between now and Thanksgiving or so, what I’d consider the rest of “fall” migration, is indeed a wonderful time for birding (though the ID conundrums of that Peterson image haunt my dreams). Temperatures are cool and comfortable, foliage is changing colors and the bugs are down. The conditions approximate some of those first, glorious days of spring migration, except it’s less muddy and you get to watch more football.

After all, we have to get our fill of birding around here before the arrival of winter, when species diversity especially among Passerines truly plummets.

I suggest trying out one of these five locations for fall birding before the weather really turns. You won’t be disappointed, even by the supposedly less handsome birds.

Here’s a final look at the wood warbler species in question:

A birdy day at Big Marsh

Temperatures were a seasonable 52 degrees and skies were clear as Chicago Ornithological Society’s Big Marsh field trip began on Saturday morning. Eleven birders gathered in the parking lot of the Far South Side park to make their way around the wetland impoundments and scrubby groves that encircle the site. There was a nice diversity of passerines, waterbirds and woodpeckers, including two early-season Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers that greeted us just north of the BMX Park. A cluster of migrants showed nicely to the west, including Philadelphia Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Black-throated Green Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler and many, many Yellow-rumped Warblers. On the eastern side of the marsh, we encountered the “Zugun-sittas,” a team of folks stationed at Big Marsh for the Illinois Ornithological Society’s Big Sit. Thanks to them—and their scopes—we added several shorebirds to our list including Greater Yellowlegs, Dunlin, Black-bellied Plover and American Golden Plover. A couple of Sora made brief appearances, poking out of the reeds momentarily right in front of the sit site. A pair of Eastern Wood-Pewees, a House Finch, Common Grackle and Gray Catbird were nice additions to the latter portion of the trip. At the end, a small group scanned the area from Stony Island Avenue, spotting a Black-crowned Night-Heron and an uncommon-for-the-area Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. The group totaled 58 species in its nearly three hours in the field.

TWiB Notes

Birdability and American Bird Conservancy (ABC) are co-hosting a six-part webinar series, “Birdability Birders: Conversations about Birding with Access Challenges.” An email from ABC states that the monthly webinars will feature a diverse group of people who bird in different ways and share a love of birds. The first episode will feature Virginia Rose, the founder of Birdability and a manual wheelchair user who has been birding for 17 years. Birdability Coordinator Freya McGregor will be the series host. She is an occupational therapist with a background in blindness and low-vision services as well as an avid birder. You can sign up here.

Locally, Cantigny has played host to two Birdability walks for people with mobility limitations, including one on Friday. The walk was co-sponsored by the DuPage Birding Club and attracted seven participants. Jeff Reiter reports that the walk, by design, did not cover as much ground as usual and “our goal was not to build a long list of sightings.” Twenty-one species were seen or heard from easy-to-navigate pathways behind and south of the Visitors Center at Cantigny. 

This Week in Birding will soon be celebrating its first anniversary! One thing that’s become clear to me this year is how much birds need a voice. If you’re on the free list, I’d like to ask if you’d join us as a paid subscriber. By becoming a paid subscriber, you become part of a community where birding and storytelling come together and making films like “Monty and Rose” is possible.

I am in this for the long haul since starting this newsletter as an outlet for my writing when Covid 19 hit. There are some exciting things planned for TWiB this year and into 2022, and I look forward to sharing those items soon. If you aren’t yet a paid subscriber, I hope you’ll consider becoming one. If you already are paying (thank you!), I hope you will renew your subscription when the time comes. Wishing you a wonderful week.


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