What a glorious week for seeing migrating songbirds – and what frustration for a photographer who can’t quite manage to capture them all! The trees, bushes and vines (like the Virginia Creeper on the right) are full of tiny, chirping birds that hop about quickly searching for sustenance before the next leg of their fall journeys.
I’ll share what I was able to photograph this week, with all the imperfections of an amateur photographer who, until this year, had almost no experience with warblers – who are very small and move very fast!
And then I’ll link you to better photos from Cornell Lab or Audubon.org, so you can see these little beauties up close – instead of half hidden by brush, silhouetted against the sun or at the very tops of trees! So much color and energy in the park! It’s a wonder how these small songbirds sail through the night and land in Bear Creek for a day’s rest and some fruits, seeds and insects to sustain them on the next leg of their journeys.
Winged Visitors : Warblers and Kinglets Everywhere!
If you’re looking for small migrating birds at Bear Creek, bring good binoculars and a lot of patience! I learned a lot at Wednesday’s bird walk from Dr. Ben and Ruth Glass who leads bird walks at Stoney Creek Metro Park and is a highly experienced birder. For instance, they told us that in early morning, it’s best to look for birds where the sun first hits the trees. (Makes sense, eh?) So take the path into the park from Snell and once you get out in the field, look in the trees and bushes at the first large curve to the left. Wow! Lots of birds in those bushes and trees!
Other great places for me have been the Walnut Lane and the circuit all the way around the Playground Pond. Walk slowly and very quietly and begin by listening to any cheeping in the bushes. Watch for twitching foliage and you’ll see them. But you need to go soon! The migration for many songbirds peaked this week and numbers will decline until they are gone by early November.
Here’s a sampling of what you might see:
Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) hopped from branch to branch again this week. Look for their “field marks,” including a rusty cap, dark eye line, breast streaks at the sides and yellow underparts. It’ll be leaving soon to go as far south as the Caribbean – which could be where it got its name?
I caught sight of what I think is a Tennessee Warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina) going after some fruit. It seems to be a male in its non-breeding, fall colors. Page down to the bottom of this link for several different good views, including the non-breeding (fall) plumage. Side note: Last week’s Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) and this one aren’t necessarily from Tennessee. According to Ruth Glass, they were first reported and drawn by John James Audubon who lived in Kentucky for part of his life and probably named birds for where he saw them.
The tiny, almost constantly moving Kinglets pass through Bear Creek during the spring and fall, too. The flitting Ruby-Crowned Kinglet is identified by its size, irregular white eye ring and its twitching wings! Its “ruby crown” only shows when it’s excited or courting, though one of the birders saw a Kinglet’s crown this Wednesday! Maybe you can see the tiny red dot on the head of this bird that I saw the next day – or you can have a look at it really flared in this Audubon link.
I saw another Kinglet last weekend silhouetted in the sunlight and had no idea what it was until Ruth Glass identified it from my poor photo as a Golden-Crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa.) Their field marks are a very short, thin beak perfect for winkling out insects and of course the gold on their wings and crown. Have a look at this Audubon link for a better view!
Winged Visitors: Sparrows? Yes!
I learned this year to stop ignoring small, brownish birds assuming they were all sparrows that I already knew. That’s how I missed seeing other small migrants. Look at this beautiful White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) with the bright yellow dots(called “lores”) in front of its eyes, a striped crown and of course, a white throat marked by black stripes called “whiskers” or “malar stripes”!
And here’s a young White-Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys ) which needs to be differentiated from the White-Throated Sparrow above. It’s about to make its first migration, because it was born somewhere in the far north below the arctic circle this very summer. (Thanks again to Ruth Glass for the ID!)
White-Crowned Sparrows look radically different after one year. Here’s a photo I took at Bear Creek on October 6, 2008 and then a closeup of one at my house in spring a few years later. Hard to believe it’s the same bird as the brown “first winter” bird in the photo above, isn’t it?
Sharp-eyed Ruth also saw two Lincoln’s Sparrows (Melospiza lincolnii ) which look very much like a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) but are smaller and daintier and have no central spot on their breasts. Unlike the courser streaking on a song sparrow, the Lincoln’s Sparrow’s black streaks are finer and on “buffy” flanks. Wikipedia says they are “quite secretive” – too much so, for my eyes and camera! So here’s another Cornell link to get a look.
The visiting summer sparrows that spent their summer in the park are still here too. A Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its bright white eye ring and pinkish bill and feet watches other migrants hop in the trees. As their name implies, Field Sparrows avoid suburban areas and will soon fly off to somewhere south of Michigan so keep an eye out for them soon at places like Bear Creek!
Winged Migrants: a Mixture of Species
During the Wednesday bird walk, the treetops on Walnut Lane were filled with Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus). This nomadic finch appears some years and not others as it follows the best seed crops. My photo in morning sun in the treetops shows its streaky head and body but not the flashes of its subdued winter yellow as they flutter or fly, so have a look at Cornell Lab’s photo.
Down at the Center Pond, we saw an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) darting from the shore to the water, catching a few bugs. The most distinguishing field mark of a Phoebe is a constantly pumping tail, plus a dark head and white breast. The males usually sing “Phee-beee” only when courting but one was trying out its song on Wednesday. It probably spent the summer here. It will be migrating in the next couple of weeks and be gone by early November.
At the western edge of the pond on Wednesday, deep in the brush, skulked a migrating Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) who probably raised its young farther north in Michigan or Canada. These birds rummage in leaf litter looking for insects, so they can be hard to see. But the following day, it appeared on a log near the pond.
Also at the pond, Ruth spotted a Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) which may have spent the summer among pines farther north. It generally looks blue-gray but Ruth told us it’s more blue in direct sunlight. I love its white “spectacles.” Unfortunately, I didn’t get a shot of it but here’s the link to Cornell’s photo.
The Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) males at the Center Pond are slowly getting rid of their eclipse plumage. Here’s one whose beautiful green head feathers have almost completely molted.
He’d probably like the molt to be over, since some of the males now have their full complement of courting plumage and are already pairing up with females, though mating won’t happen until spring! They’ll move to the Gulf Coast this winter, unless they can find an area with sufficient food and open water farther north.
The Gray Catbird raised its young here this summer but will be leaving soon, too. This one in the vines and bushes north of the Playground Pond looks like it’s finished molting and is about ready to go.
Winter Residents (or Delayed Departures) Molting into Winter Garb
A flock of young Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), who have left their fledgling feathers behind and now wear their first winter garb, jostled noisily among the fruiting vines and trees. Some of them may remain here for at least part of the winter and then head south. I saw a flock of Waxwings at Bear Creek eating in ice-glazed branches on Christmas Eve two years ago! Others have already left for warmer climes, sometimes as far south as Central America. These noisy young ones are identified by mottled chests, shorter crests, and a wider white lines around the mask – but the tips of their tails still glow bright yellow in sunlight like adult waxwings.
This female American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) looks a bit disconcerted about molting into her drab winter colors, much like the female Cardinal that I posted last week.
This winter-ready Goldfinch, though, looked as if it enjoyed its ride on a plume of Canada Goldenrod as it picked seeds from the dried blossoms as they swayed in the wind.
Odds ‘n’ Ends
A tiny Eastern Chipmunk ((Tamias striatus) dashed up a tree near Snell Road. I love how his tail was backlit by the late afternoon sun.
In the southernmost meadow near Snell, I spotted a large patch of white plants I’d never seen before. Dr. Ben identified them as Fragrant Cudweed. The University of Michigan Herbarium uses that common name or the slightly less bovine Old-Field Balsam. Many internet sites call it Sweet Everlasting (my fave of the three) and look at its Latin name – Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium – !! Whatever you call this native plant, it’s interesting. According to a Minnesota Wildflower site, the clusters of what look like egg-shaped buds are actually the blooms with the yellow/brown anthers (pollen- producing flower parts) exposed at the end. And what looks like whorled petals are bracts, leaflike structures which will open and fall when the seed ripens. Nice to have fresh blooms so late in the year! As the weather gets colder, we’ll really wish they were everlasting!
Fall migration must be a restless, exhausting, but exciting time for birds. Their hormones, the shorter days, and the temperature all tell them it’s time to go south. Dangers lurk along the way, which is one of the reasons perching birds travel at night, avoiding raptors who travel by day. Severe weather, a shopping mall where a woods used to be, lighted buildings that confuse the birds’ navigation systems can all be disastrous. But the pull is strong and off these small birds go in the night, riding the wind if they can. I hope you get to see some of them off.
*Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991);Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification;Birds of North American Online; Audubon.org