In August, the big migration begins

Barbara Hootman

August brings some of the first sprays of goldenrod swaying in the hot afternoon breeze.  It brings half-grown rabbits pilfering through the vegetable and flower gardens looking for tender leaves to munch. It brings wild grapes clustered high in the trees along creek banks.

Milkweed is putting on its fat pods.  August usually brings the dog days of summer, but July came in first in the hot temperature race this year.

August marks the beginning of fall migration for birds.  They begin flocking, or gathering in groups, in August.  Breeding and nesting seasons are over for most of the birds, and the focus is on molting and putting on weight for migration. Just because the first phase of migration is starting doesn’t mean that summer is over.  There is plenty of hot weather left.

Birds are focusing on returning to winter grounds and that means thousands of miles to cover. The fledglings are out of the nest and are taking care of themselves.  That may sound like the adult birds are kicking back and living lives of leisure, but nothing could be farther from the truth.  Molting involves shedding and re-growing most of their feathers, if not all of them.  The process takes a lot of energy.

By mid-August shorebird migration will be in full swing.  Most of the songbirds rest and rejuvenate until September and then begin the actual move to winter grounds.  Purple martins, chimney swifts and barn swallows are already beginning to congregate in masses. They will be on the wing by the third week of August in large flocks moving south.

The young birds are becoming familiar with the area in which they were hatched, checking it out for food and water.  Even those migrating will remember and return next spring to the area where they were hatched. The young birds will take their first migration trip and depend on genetic imprinting to fly long distance and arrive where they are supposed to, recognizing it when they get there.

Fall migration for birds is a much slower process than the spring one.  During spring migration, male birds are driven to arrive on their breeding grounds first to claim the best nesting sites and capture the attention of females.

During fall migration birds take their time and choose the best flying conditions.  Cold fronts are common across the country in August and September providing optimum flying conditions.

The Cerulean Warbler and the Louisiana Water thrush started migrating in July. Some of the young Indigo Buntings are still around, but many of the adults have left for their winter grounds.  It is during the last half of August that migration noticeably picks up.

During late summer and fall, robins leave their breeding and nesting territories and begin to flock.  They will spend fall and winter in large flocks moving from place to place in search of food. Our area of the country has robins year round, but not the same birds. They are nomadic by nature.  Survival rates are higher in flocks because there are more eyes watching for predators.

By fall, robins are searching for ripe fruit. Most robins move from northern states south because when the earth freezes earthworms are no longer available.  Some will remain in northern areas, but if none moved south there wouldn’t be enough fruit to feed all the robins during the winter months. Robins switch their diets during late fall to almost all fruit until the next spring.

Robins move to new territories during daylight hours.  Scientists estimate that only about 25 percent of fledgling robins survive until November.  Many adults die while wandering from place to place in search of food.  Robins can become stressed by too much heat.  That is one reason they do not remain in the south during the summer.  Also, during excessive heat, earthworms retreat deeper into the soil.

In late summer, robins become  nomadic again, wandering in search of fruit.

It isn’t until October that robins grow down feathers to give warmth during winter.  They molt the majority of their feathers from late July into October.  The new feathers must last for an entire year.  If a feather is damaged and falls out, it will be regrown quickly.

In addition to berries, robins enjoy crab apples, and there is a good crop this year.  When they exhaust one food supply, they will move along and find another one. They remain in one spot only during nesting season.

Some doves are beginning to flock, while others continue to nest until fall.

Baby bats are beginning to fly.

Hummingbirds are feeding heavily. Hawthorn fruit begins to ripen.

Black bears are shedding hair. Some appear naked in spots.

Keep out plenty of fresh water for bathing and drinking.

Bring in the bird feeders by late afternoon.

May you always hear the whisper of wings.