Fall Migration Heats Up In The Forest City

A floating dock in the foreground in a pond surrounded by trees covered in leaves in many different fall colours.

Fall is one of my favourite times of year to get out birding; not only are the leaves changing, large concentrations of birds are migrating through our area.

Fall migration is one of the best times of year to get out birding. With such a high concentration of birds moving through the area, there is always plenty to see. This past week we saw a real mix of weather from almost summer-like to winter conditions across the city. Despite the fluctuating weather, fall migration continued as scheduled.

A medium sized brown coloured bird perched on a branch with some green foliage remaining.

Hermit Thrushes are currently migrating through our area. They can be distinguished from other thrushes by their reddish tail.

Over the past seven days, I observed many of the species we would expect to see moving through the area at this time of year. Thrushes including Hermit, Swainson’s, and Veery were all observed on or near the forest floor in several of the wooded areas I birded. American Robin numbers increased this past week, as it seems many of the birds that breed to our north have made their way into our area. It is hard to pass by a fruit tree right now without hearing a flock of Robins calling back and forth.

Small bird perched on a Goldenrod stalk.

Ruby-crowned Kinglets are currently abundant as they migrate through the Forest City.

Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets are currently migrating through the city in impressive numbers. These birds can be found almost anywhere from backyards to city parks and ESAs. Spotting these tiny songbirds can be tricky, so be sure to pay attention for their constant movements and high pitched calls. Kinglets feed predominantly on insects, but will also eat the seeds of many plants on cooler days when insects are scarce at this time of year. If you are searching for these birds, pay close attention to fields of Goldenrod adjacent to forest edges.

Large raptor perched on the top of a dead tree limb, with a clear blue sky inthe background.

Mid October is when large numbers of Turkey Vultures migrate across Southwestern Ontario.

Raptor species continue to move through our area with Turkey Vultures being the most abundant. These birds soar with their wings raised slightly upward giving them a “V” shape. This, along with their red featherless heads, helps distinguish them from eagles and other large raptors. Several Merlins were observed at various locations within the city including along the Thames River, Westminster Ponds, and in my own Old South neighbourhood.

Small bird with sun on him, perched in a tree laden with crab apples.

Nashville Warbler perched in a Crabapple tree.

Despite warbler migration having already peaked, some species are still present in our area. Last week I observed a Nashville Warbler while birding in Greenway Park. One warbler that we expect to see this time of year and later is the Yellow-rumped. In fact, London, Ontario falls within this bird’s winter range, making it the only warbler to winter this far north. While most other warblers consume a strictly insect diet, the Yellow-rumped’s diet changes to fruit and seeds in the fall and winter allowing them survive in our climate. Look for Yellow-rumped Warblers along the banks of the Thames River, and along forest edges where there is an abundance of food in the form of berries and Goldenrod seeds.

Small bird perched on a reddish brown branch in the full sun, with Goldenrod below.

Yellow-rumped Warbler perched adjacent to a field of Goldenrod.

Migrating waterfowl have begun to show up in the city, specifically at Saunders Pond in the Westminster Ponds ESA. I observed a large flock of RIng-necked Ducks on the east side of the pond over the weekend, and a Common Loon in the middle of the pond on Tuesday. Unfortunately, both of these species were too far out for quality photos. Scanning the pond with binoculars to get a better view of the loon revealed American Coots, Wood Ducks, and a Pied-billed Grebe.

Muddy, wet ground with brownish-red bird standing in water.

Rusty Blackbird foraging in the swampy habitat at Westminster Ponds ESA.

Rusty Blackbirds were also present at the Westminster Ponds ESA. These birds have experienced one of the largest population declines of any North American songbird. It is estimated that their numbers have dropped by 85-99% in the last forty years. The name Rusty Blackbird describes their winter plumage perfectly, but may not depict how beautiful these birds truly are. The best access point to see the Rusty Blackbirds is from behind Tourist Information on Wellington Road. From there, follow the boardwalk north that runs alongside Saunders Pond.

Reddish-brown bird walking through swampy habitat with it's leg and foot suspended in air.

Rusty Blackbirds can be found in flooded forests, wet thickets, swamps and marshes during migration. The west side of Saunders Pond in the Westminster Ponds ESA provides this exact habitat.

Dark-eyed Juncos and many of our winter sparrows, including White-throated and White-crowned, have now returned to the area. Many of you may have already seen these birds, as they are frequent visitors to backyard feeders. If you do not get these birds in your yard, you can find them  feeding on Goldenrod and other seeds in the same open areas and forest edges where you will find Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Sparrows can be incredibly difficult to identify, especially in fall when many of these birds are still displaying their juvenile plumage. Remember to pay special attention to the subtle differences in their field marks to achieve proper identification.

Puffed up sparrow in a tree branch surrounded by wet snow falling on green leaves. Yellow marking by beak.

Several winter sparrow species have returned to our area including the White-throated pictured here.

The weather this past week varied incredibly. The one thing that remained fairly consistent was strong winds. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of finding a location out of the wind to improve your birding success. By doing a few minutes of research and selecting a location out of the wind, you will not only stay warmer on the cool days, but you will also find more birds. Birds unnecessarily expend energy by balancing on blowing branches or trying to keep warm in the path of a cold wind. For these reasons, birds will almost always search out protected areas. The temperature difference between a sheltered and non-sheltered area can vary by several degrees at this time of year, and the warmer protected areas are where insect activity will also be the greatest. Insects will always be found on the leeward side of a forest, and consequently so too will the birds that feed on them. Some of the city’s natural areas are hundreds of hectares in size, but by doing your research and finding a food source out of the wind, you can eliminate a lot of area where bird activity will be limited.

Small sparrow with seeds in it's beak, perched on a snowy and moss covered branch.

Monday morning’s wet flurries provided the perfect backdrop for this White-crowned Sparrow, a species that recently returned to our area.

Fall migration has brought plenty of great species into the London area. Many of these species will be with us all winter, while others will not. If you get the chance, head to your favourite birding hotspot, or one of the locations I mentioned in this post; use the wind to your advantage and take in all of the beautiful sights and sounds fall birding has to offer.

Good birding,
Paul

 

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