Fall migration has started

Fall migration has started

By Rod Myers, Naturalist

Though it’s not even autumn yet, bird migration is already under way. Some species of swallows have already gone south, including the locally uncommon purple martin. This species is getting harder and harder to find in the Rockford area during its breeding season.

Shore birds, those long-legged, long-beaked birds that probe in the mud, hence the name shore birds, have been migrating south since July. There are many species of shore birds, and the schedule of travel depends on the species. Some species will be passing through even in October. The golden plover is noted for this, and a good spot to view them is the Cooling Sod Farm near Cherry Valley. But this is private property, so don’t trespass; pull your vehicle to the side of the road and use your binoculars or, in this instance, a scope, as you will be searching great distances because the sod farm is immense. The sod farm seems to always have some shore birds there during migration, but any muddy area near natural and unnatural water could attract shore birds.

A hawk that is very uncommon in Illinois, called the Swainson’s hawk, has already left for Central and South America. Illinois Swainson’s leave heading due west for well over 1,000 miles till turning south to Mexico and beyond. The Illinois Swainson’s breed in and around Kankakee County only; however, some were spotted in northern Winnebago County late this spring, and one was seen in summer in Ogle County several years ago.

The warblers have started to trickle down from the north, but their big push will occur in mid-September and on into October. The warblers change feather color patterns when they molt in late summer. Disappointingly, the patterns they change into are duller and confusing to bird identifiers. In the springtime, of course, warblers are vibrant with color, and most are easily identified except that the females can be a little confusing. However, one of a few warbler species that changes his clothing only slightly or not at all is the palm warbler, but this species is not as colorful as most of the other species.

The ruby-throated hummingbird has started its migration. The ruby-throated is the only species of hummingbird that breeds east of the Mississippi and is common in our area. Most of them will be gone shortly after Labor Day, so right now, make sure those hummingbird feeders are full because those little hummers will need a lot of energy for that long migration, and no, they don’t hitch rides on the backs of Canada geese, though I did see a very late migrant clinging to the back of Santa’s sleigh while the sleigh was in flight. Good thing I was stargazing with a telescope, or I wouldn’t have seen it. What? Of course, Santa has flight lights, or I wouldn’t have seen the bird. Don’t tell me you don’t believe in the old man.

Nighthawks have started their migration. On some days, you can see hundreds or even more slowly making their way, even over Rockford. Often, it’s kind of a steady, trickle process, one at a time like a long ribbon with gaps in it. Their flight, with long, narrow wings, is unmistakable. They look like giant chimney swifts on sedatives, but the nighthawk has a much longer tail, and I guess some people think the chimney swift has short wings, but I think they look long ‘cause they are skinny.

Nighthawks breed all the way up into Canada, usually on the ground in gravelly or other small stone-covered areas where they blend in very well. However, nighthawks breed in cities including Rockford, usually on flat rooftops, especially those older roofs with a stone coating.

Nighthawks will roost parallel on sizable branches of trees by sitting parallel. The nighthawk gets more of a ground-like effect from the branch as the bird’s feet are weaker in the clinging abilities. Nighthawks are most active in early evening and night, seeming to fly about for many hours at a time in search of flying insects. They spend most of the day sleeping, and I can remember as a child spending many summer afternoons looking for dozing nighthawks parallel parked in those old stately American elms that lined Rockford’s streets before Dutch elm disease took its toll.

I haven’t mentioned all the early migrants, so keep your eyes to the skies and learn about the ones I didn’t talk about.

P.S. – Nighthawks migrate during the day and night. Go out and look for them in the night sky. You can see them in brightly lit business districts high above the buildings.

Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in the environment and disability issues. He has an associate’s degree in science and a bachelor’s in fine arts. Rod is a member of the Audubon Society, the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and Rockford Amateur Astronomers, Inc.

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