The feathered friends of fall migration

Guest post by Ken Klick

Fall bird migration is happening now at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, and each day (and night) brings tens of thousands of newly arrived birds. Yet finding fall migrants can be challenging. Their subdued palettes of brown, tan, and olive feathers hide in sharp contrast to their resplendent springtime colors.

Unlike spring migration, most birds travel quietly in the fall, barely whispering a note to indicate their presence. In Lake County, fall migration starts in July, when our forests and prairies are green and full of blooming flowers. It’s a five-month-long period involving more than 200 species that rest and feed in our nearly 31,000 acres of preserves.

Spotting a bird can be difficult when vegetation conceals fleeting glimpses, making observations tricky and identification nearly impossible. Besides, who’s thinking of fall migration in July’s summer vacation mindset?

Either way, here are some of my favorite fall birding observations by month, over my past five decades of birdwatching.

July brings our first fall migrants: shorebirds. A visit to the Lake Michigan shoreline at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest finds sanderlings (Calidris alba), sandpipers (Scolopacidae family), and yellowlegs (Tringa spp.) avoiding people and surf while searching for food. Many migrating shorebirds have just finished raising young in the tundra’s perpetual daylight and have embarked on a 6,000-mile round trip journey.

Solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). Photo © Phil Hauck.

A few weeks later, near the tail end of August, is when swallows (Hirundinidae family) and common nighthawks (Chordeiles minor) congregate in ever-increasing numbers for their South American destinations. Six kinds of swallows can be seen skimming our lakes and ponds, catching insects such as flies and beetles. Each evening the swallows gather in large, swirling flocks before resting on power lines, bridges, buildings, or treetops for the night. These communal gatherings become seasonal tourist attractions, often garnering news coverage.

Tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). Photo © Phil Hauck.

Nighthawks are my favorite. Like winged darts, these sleek birds can be seen sailing south high in late summer’s humid air. Nighthawks sometimes catch the season’s first cold front in late August for an easy tailwind ride south. Sadly, this bird is becoming rare in Lake County due to toxic pesticides and habitat loss. I know of only a few breeding pairs remaining.

Common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor). Photo © Ronnie d'Entremont.
Common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor). Photo © Ronnie d’Entremont.

September is the month when fall bird diversity and numbers reach their peak. Think warblers (Parulidae family), vireos (Vireonidae family), tanagers (Thraupidae family), grosbeaks (Passeroidea superfamily), and thrushes (Turdidae family). It’s the time when the air can have a hint of autumnal crispness. Leaves begin to change colors, fewer mosquitoes are around, and yet asters, goldenrods, and gentians still bloom. This is the time when bird identification can be very challenging, especially considering the abundance of first-year young with immature plumages.

Warbling vireo (Vireo gilvus). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Warbling vireo (Vireo gilvus). Photo © Phil Hauck.

A visit to a preserve now can seem quiet and lacking birds, but there’s a little trick I use to draw distant birds closer—sometimes within inches. I sit quietly and “squeak,” a sound that birds either find alarming or intriguing; I’m not sure which. When the purse-lipped squeak works, birds seem to drip from every branch and descend from all directions. There’s something magical about being that close to a bird weighing a mere three ounces, eye to eye. Moments like that don’t require formal names. I just marvel at the incredible journey this tiny bird faces and it helps put my life in perspective.

Living close to the western shores of Lake Michigan provides us with some of the world’s best hawk viewing opportunities. It’s in October when strong northwesterly winds blow migrating raptors—hawks, eagles, and vultures—eastward until they reach the undesirable airspace over the Great Lake’s open water. (It’s undesirable because there are no rising thermals to improve flight.)

Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). Photo © Phil Hauck.

Patient, dedicated hawk watchers sit in comfortable chairs scanning the sky. On a good flight day when the wind, cloud cover, and barometric pressure are just right, counters log thousands of hawks silently passing at dizzying heights, some singly and some in swirling masses of thousands called kettles. Visit the Hawk Migration Association of North America’s website to learn more about our local hawk watch sites at Fort Sheridan and Illinois Beach State Park. Unless it’s raining, there are always dedicated volunteers there from Labor Day to Thanksgiving keeping an eagle-eye view of the sky. They love having visitors and appreciate an extra set of fresh eyes to help.

Compared to October, November’s sky is loud like a concert, and it delivers our area’s most recognizable bird migration scene. This is the month when skeins of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) and Canada geese (Branta canadensis) fly in their iconic V-shaped formations. We often hear these birds long before spotting them high in the blue-domed sky. There’s no doubt winter is just around the corner when we see them, since ice-laden wetlands and fields drive them southward.

Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis). Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis). Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

There’s one last migrant you might see in November, often when the weather is most unpleasant with snow and wind. The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) can be spotted locally, a real rarity. It’s amazing to think these November birds—the eagle, crane, and goose—were nearly extinct when I first started birdwatching 50 years ago.

Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Photo © Jeff Bleam.
Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Photo © Jeff Bleam.

As you can see, each month of the year provides unique birding experiences. Yet they’re fairly predictable by those who venture out and look. These annual events unfold in nature’s rhythms and patterns, and have brought comfort to many during this pandemic. Do what you can to protect bird habitat by planting native plants on as much of your property as possible. Birdwatching places our local and global community in context. Our feathered friends are bellwethers of how well we share our world. 

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