Late October ends fall migration

Barbara Hootman

By the end of October most songbirds on their way south have passed through the Valley. Soon winter birds will take up residence.

The Yellow-rump Warbler is one of the most common warblers and can winter as far north as New England. Many spend winters in the WNC mountains.
The Tennessee Warbler winters from southern Mexico through Central America to Colombia.
The Palm  Warbler breeds in northern Canada and winters in the southern U.S. and the northern Caribbean. This one was hunting insects at Owen Park recently.
This Cape May Warbler on its migratory route south for the winter was hunting bugs in the trees at Owen Park.

When you talk a walk with fall, notice how yesterday is all around you.  It is a time when last spring’s growth and summer’s yield has come to fruition. Even last month’s ripeness is a now a memory. Look closely and you will find tomorrow in the sprout and bud and even in the seed. Many plants are ready for next year’s spring. If fall is the evening of the year, starlight paves the path to the dawn of new day.

Goldenrod sways in the fall breezes, having lost a lot of its golden color and turned a dull gray.  It has full ripe heads to feed the birds.  Milkweed has burst with its rich silk scattering seeds in the fall breezes. Grasses have heavy seed heads. This fall wild birds have a lot to eat, but the supply will soon be depleted.

Notice how the Robins are changing color.  They have gone from brick red breasts to duller ones.  The hairy and downy woodpeckers are dressed in their fresh tweedy black and white feathers.  Starlings are wearing speckled feathers with just a little of the greenish gloss that they had through summer.  Goldfinches have discarded their buttery yellow breeding feathers.  Their wings are still black, making them easy to spot, and their shoulders have a hint of yellow.  They forage on wild seeds with groups of sparrows.

Cardinals are holiday red in late October.  They have the same brilliant color throughout the year.  They are fashion plates at feeders.  The chickadees are in black and white, free of the worn look of late summer.  Blue Jays are tidy in their blue and white feathers, and crows are showy in their fresh black feathers.

Barbara Hootman

Chipmunks are hauling seed to their burrows by cheeks full all day.  They are laden with fat as are the gray squirrels that know where every bird feeder is located in a neighborhood.  Black bears are putting on weight daily to see them through winter.  Cubs are growing rapidly now and will spend their first winter denning with their mother.

Warblers have been plentiful in the Western North Carolina mountains this year.  The wave of warbler migration peaked about mid-month, but there are still warblers passing through the Valley on their way south. Wild bird-lover and photographer James Poling spotted several warblers at Owen Park recently. He was able to observe the Cape May, Palm, Tennessee and Yellow-rump Warblers. The warblers were competing with the Cedar Wax Wings for bugs in the trees.  Notice how all of the warblers that Poling spotted have various shades of yellow in the feathers.  They have already molted into fall feathers which doesn’t change their appearance much.

The Cape May, Palm and Tennessee warblers are on their way to southern wintering grounds, while the Yellow-rump Warbler will stay around throughout the winter.  The Tennessee Warbler winters from southern Mexico through Central America to Colombia.  The Cape May Warbler spends the winter in the West Indies.  It has a unique curled semi-tubular tongue for sipping nectar, and the Palm Warbler breeds in northern Canada and winters in the southern U.S. and northern Caribbean.  Although they pass through the Appalachian Mountains and the WNC mountains, they are all going different places for the winter.

The most common warbler to winter in the WNC area is the Yellow-rump Warbler.  Even in nonbreeding plumage, it has the yellow rump patch that is evident especially when the bird is in flight.  It shifts to a berry diet in fall and winter and can survive as far north as New England.  You will find it searching through leaves and twigs looking for insects.  It forages in flocks during the winter and feeds on caterpillars, wasps, grasshoppers, gnats and aphids when available. It eats wax myrtle and poison ivy berries during fall and winter.  Its ability to digest the berries with waxed berries allows it to remain as far north as it does.

The Yellow-rump Warbler migrates earlier in the spring and later in the fall than any other warbler.  Its fall feathers are a paler brown with the bright yellow rump patch and some yellow on the sides.  The spring molt brings a transformation into bright shades of yellow, mixed with charcoal gray and black with white background feathers. Warblers won’t come to feeders, but they work the trees for insects.

By late October most of the migrating birds have passed through the WNC mountains and the winter birds start arriving.

Keep out plenty of water for drinking and bathing, and bring the bird feeders inside.

May you always hear the whisper of wings.