Birder’s Paradise: The Fall Migration
Debbie Becker has been The New York Botanical Garden’s resident bird expert for over 25 years, and continues to lead her popular Bird Walks on Saturday mornings throughout much of the year. She maintains Birding Around NYC, where readers can find photo galleries of recent NYBG bird walks and up-to-date lists of species seen during each outing.
As the end of summer draws near, deep sighs can be heard from school children and cries of delight from parents. The pleasures of the warmer months are shared by many in different ways. For those of us who are naturalists and birders, we endure the summer months dreaming about the end of August, because it signals the most exciting seasonal change: the great fall bird migration.
Our plants and trees—it is their time to shine—have spent the summer producing berries and seeds to nourish the migrating birds. The fruit of the crabapple, dogwood, and viburnum become ripe with juicy berries for Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, while the sweet gum tree offers nestled seeds—in sticky balls—to American Goldfinch, Pine Siskins, Red-winged Blackbirds and Purple Finch. Cedar Waxwings will also partake in harvesting berries for sustenance. Eastern Kingbirds use the ripe berries as lures to catch insects attracted to the sweet nectar. Birders and photographers fancy themselves capturing these scenes over and over again and flock to NYBG to enjoy the fall bird migration.
The bird walks at NYBG will enter their 30th year this September. Bird conservation has made NYBG an informative and valuable place to observe birds. Over the years, so much has changed. Some birds which were quite plentiful have become harder to spot due to climate change, habitat destruction, and disease. Birds that were common in our area, such as American Crows, have suffered greatly from the West Nile Virus. In their absence, ravens have filled their niche. Noisy house finch, which were once plentiful, have suffered from conjunctivitis and had trouble repopulating; the house sparrow and starling populations have exploded in their absence. In sharp comparison, American Robins are flourishing while they adapt to climate change by taking advantage of different food sources. This ability to adapt enables the Robin to overwinter instead of migrating to warmer climates. Climate change and extreme weather with changing temperatures, shifting wind patterns, and violent storms have displaced many bird species and brought new visitors to the New York City area; Pine Siskins, Crossbills, assorted Sparrows, and Kingbirds have been spotted in the last few years.
Here is a program of what you can expect to see at NYBG on the Saturday Morning Bird Walk:
The month of September will start out with dynamic hummingbirds that will amaze you with their acrobatic flying feats. Only the females will visit the New York City area, and they are very territorial, even in migration—often chasing each other off the orange jewel weed blossoms that are their favorite treat. Warblers will begin to trickle in and become more plentiful as the month ends. American Redstarts, Ovenbirds, and Blue-winged, Black and White, Palm, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Blue, Nashville, and Orange-crowned Warblers are just some of the warblers that will pass through.
One of the most spectacular hawk movements occurs in the middle of September. Broad-winged hawks migrating back to South America ride the Atlantic Flyway over NYBG, picking up warm air thermals and circling in “kettles” (50 hawks or more circling until they find a warm air thermal) over the Garden grounds. At times they can fill the sky and are quite a sight to behold. We have counted up to 5,000 hawks at a time circling over our heads. Bald eagles, Turkey vultures, Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks, Merlins, Peregrine Falcons, American Kestrels, Osprey, and Red-tailed hawks also migrate from Septempber 15th through October 15th and can easily be observed at NYBG. It is quite an exciting time to bird!
October is Sparrow month at NYBG. The new Native Plant Garden has become a sparrow magnet. Here we can spot Lincoln, Lark, Field, White-crowned and -throated, Chipping, Clay, and Vesper sparrows. Also in the mix are Indigo Buntings, Pine Siskins, and American Goldfinch (resident birds) turning from bright yellow to a camouflaged greenish brown. They all nourish themselves on freshly seeded plants of the meadow. Twin Lakes also becomes lively as Gadwall, Teal, and Wood ducks add color to the rippling waters. Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers can also be viewed on the shoreline along with Great Blue Heron and a lingering Black-crowned Night Heron.
Rare Golden Eagles and Rough-legged Hawks begin their migration just as the trees at NYBG begin to dazzle with color. These large birds can sometimes be spotted riding hot air thermals near the front entrance of the Garden. Also passing through are Ruby and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Purple Finch, Eastern Bluebirds, Brown Creepers, and Fox Sparrow. In late November, our winter residents arrive as the last of the summer visitors leave. Gray Catbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, Hermit Thrush, and Northern Flickers give us their last looks, as White- and Red-breasted Nuthatch, Tufted Titmouse, Black Capped Chickadee, and Juncos return.
On the Twin Lakes we can spy assorted water fowl, including Wood ducks, Pied-billed Grebes, Coots, Northern Shovelers, Bufflehead, and Hooded Mergansers. Rusty blackbirds arrive in December, creaking and squeaking in the swampy areas as they pick through the water-logged leaves for insects.
As the leaves begin to fall, the Forest opens up, revealing its secrets and enabling us to locate our resident Great Horned Owls. They live here year round, but the density of the forest and their elusiveness prevents us from marveling at their size and mystery. The Garden is not only home to Great Horned Owls; we are also visited by Barred, Saw Whet and Long Eared owls, too. They arrive from late December through March and roost in the garden—much to the delight of the birders. Our Great Horned Owls begin courting in late December and if you walk the forest path, as night begins to fall, you can hear the owls hooting to each other and sometimes see them performing their courtship ritual.
The Fall Bird Migration holds a different surprise each month. It’s a treasure hunt for the birders and a joy to any nature enthusiast.