Fall and Spring migrations are exciting times for bird watchers since they get to see species that are passing through on their way to distant breeding or wintering areas. Yet the passage of these millions of beautiful birds can be hardly if at all noticed by the mass of people focused on their own lives.
We are fortunate to live in two areas in NC and FL where large numbers of spectacular migrating birds pass by literally in our backyards. Here are some examples that we have seen from our back deck on early sunny mornings in September just outside Boone, NC. I have divided these into primarily fruit and insect eating species but this diet distinction is not a hard and fast rule. There can be a considerable number of fruits available in September on vibunum, dogwood, spicebush, mountain holly, Fraser and cucumber magnolias, black gum, and pokeweed that will attract migrant and resident birds.
We were excited when we heard our first Swainson’s thrushes on Sept. 14, which in the east are migrating primarily from boreal Canada to Central and South America. They are very attracted to dogwood trees in our yard so we have a front row seat in their feeding frenzy. They compete with our local catbirds, towhees and brown thrashers for the bright red fruits as well as with scarlet tanagers and rose breasted grosbeaks. This is a male scarlet tanager which has already molted its bright red plumage and is now yellowish. So if you see a red tanager this time of year you know it must be a male summer tanager which does not lose its breeding coloration. The cedar waxwing is a fruit specialist that breeds in N America and may winter in the SE US or some may migrate to Central America. It seems to be especially specialized for swallowing large fruits rather than picking them into pieces.
The classic insect eaters include the beautiful and sometimes confusing Fall warblers that often lose their breeding coloration and challenge the birders to find them high in the trees and figure out what they are. The chesnut sided and black throated green warblers breed in our area and in the NE US and southern Canada and migrate to Central America and the Caribbean. The magnolia and Tennessee warblers breed in the N US and southern/central Canada and migrate to the Caribbean islands and Central America. The red eyed vireo has a very extensive breeding range in N America from Florida to Canada and spends the winters in S America. The great crested flycatcher has a very extensive breeding range in eastern N America but winters in the Caribbean, Central and northern S America. The great crested is famous for placing snake skins in its tree hole nest to repel mammalian predators.
The colors, behaviors and habits of birds are endlessly fascinating and the varieties that pass through our backyards are astonishing. The times for migration are fleeting so you must pay attention to the sights and sounds of these remarkable creatures. You can be of special help in their marathon journeys by planting fruit bearing shrubs of many types and in covering windows with venetian blinds or other masking shades that limit the massive losses due to collision with shiny windows. The long distance migrations of these tiny birds are truly incredible and illustrate how evolution has selected for the ability to fly thousands of miles to find a rich source of food to feed their young, even when these northern habitats are unsuitable during the winter.