October is a very special time of the year in Pennsylvania. The first week of the month there are still a ton of neotropical migrants around, but then their numbers start to drop off drastically. Coming to the rescue are the sparrows and raptors, which really excel during the second half of the month. Waterfowl also begin to trickle through the state and more northern counties begin to see their first winter visitors from the tundra and the northern forests. With so much diversity, the possibility of racking up a nice month list is really astonishing – if you had gotten out birding a fair amount during the beginning of the month, you probably saw a nice variety of the birds that made September so much fun plus you still have time to see a lot of the early winter birds that begin to come in during the last two weeks of the month.
I went through the eBird bar charts for the PA and attempted to make some predictions on what species should start to show up, start to leave, and begin to reach peak numbers during the last week or so of October. This isn’t comprehensive obviously. My goal with this is to help PA birders be better prepared for the 2012 fall migration and know what to be on the look-out for while in the field, birding. Remember that these predictions are based entirely on eBird bar charts for the state of PA, which you can help to make better and more accurate by using eBird yourself.
This is the second part of two posts, use this link to see part 1. Please follow links below to various other resources such as past Nemesis Bird posts, eBird checklists, other photos, maps of birding hotspots, etc.
Many of the resident owl species such as Barred, Great Horned, and Eastern Screech are becoming more vocal and can often be easy to coax into calling by playing a recording of their vocalizations in proper habitat. Nights with little moonshine and low winds are the best. Short-eared and Long-eared Owls may turn up in the northern portion of the state as well as hotspots for these species in the south-central and SE.
The real owl mascot for this month is the Northern Saw-whet Owl and wow, what a year it is shaping up to be! Saw-whet banding stations across the continent are reporting record numbers of these little, flying ewoks. If you know of any saw-whet banding stations near you, try to arrange a visit! Plan for nights with little moonshine, cold temperatures, good wind direction, and light to moderate wind speeds for the best chance at catching and seeing an owl.
Most of you know that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have really left for warmer areas, with only a handful of reports of birds still visiting feeders around the state. That doesn’t mean you should take your feeders down!! In fact, put up two feeders and put out some pots of late-blooming flowers like Pineapple Sage and cuphea. The chance to attract a hummingbird vagrant is on the increase from now until the start of spring. With so many more people aware of vagrant hummers and with so many licensed hummingbird banders around the state getting the word out, more and more Selasphorus hummingbirds (especially Rufous Hummingbird) are being reported. If you do notice a hummingbird in your yard, try to notify the PA Birds Listserve as soon as possible. During the late fall and winter of past years Anna’s Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Calliope Hummingbird, Allen’s Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, and others have turned up at feeders in PA and surrounding states!
Swallows and Swifts
Most swallows have retreated from the NE and really only Tree Swallows are being seen throughout the state. Massive numbers of Tree Swallows are gathering along the coast right now. Look carefully for vagrant Cave Swallows, especially when hawk watching or along Lake Erie. Chimney Swifts are becoming harder and harder to find in their regular summertime habitats of small towns and cities – almost all will be gone from the state by the first of November.
Warblers and Vireos
Sadly, most of the warblers and vireos have already passed through PA and are now already in Central America or down along the Gulf Coast. However, there are still a few to be on the lookout for and it really brightens up a cold October morning to see a little flash of color and be reminded of the good ol’ days back in September when you were wearing shorts and short-sleeves and couldn’t turn around without seeing hordes of warblers at your favorite patch. For the rest of the month, keep an eye out for Orange-crowned Warblers (a late migrant) in brushy areas with lots of goldenrod but be careful – Tennessee Warbler (which looks similar to Orange-crowned) are still possible. Nashville Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, and Black-throated Green Warbler are also still possible in many areas but in very small numbers. Common Yellowthroats can be found through November in most areas as well as Palm Warblers. Two subspecies of Palm Warblers migrate through PA – ‘Western’ Palms and ‘Yellow’ Palms. Westerns are more common, but you may see an increase in Yellows towards the end of the month. By far the most common warbler in October is the Yellow-rumped. By November they will mostly be gone from the majority of the state, with some overwintering in the SE corner. Blue-headed Vireo is really the only vireo species left to see.
What September is for fall warbler migration, October is for fall sparrow migration. There are at least 15 species of sparrows that can be seen fairly easily around the state right now, with the added possibility of rarities like Nelson’s Sparrow – look for them in weedy areas near large rivers and marshes, especially islands along the lower Susquehanna River. Your best bet to find a nice variety of sparrow species is to bird-watch at locations with lots of forest edge and a lot of brush. Even just watching the feeders in your backyard could turn up a nice collection of species. Now is the best time to learn the familiar Song Sparrow and be able to compare and contrast with other, similar species like Swamp and Lincoln’s. If you haven’t been out birding recently, you may be shocked to find that Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows have really taken over and could be the most common bird species at many of your favorite spots.
The yearly winter finch forecast has predicted that this winter could be really interesting for PA and the rest of the NE. Rarely seen species such as Red Crossbill and Evening Grosbeak could really start turning up in good numbers, with sightings of crossbills recently in various locations throughout the state and the first grosbeak reports of the year making an appearance this past weekend. If you have a thistle feeder up, you may have noticed that this year is going to be a good one for Pine Siskins. Listen for their distinct flight call while you are out birding. Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Siskins will readily come into bird feeders. Siskins prefer thistle seed tube feeders or socks and grosbeaks prefer sunflower seeds in tray feeders.
Keep an eye on the sky while out birding as you may see massive flocks of Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds. Rusty Blackbirds are also becoming more common – listen for their slightly different call and bronzy appearance. Eastern Meadowlarks will become scarce in many areas of the state once November begins.
Most flycatchers have moved through the state but Eastern Phoebes can still be found through November. During the past two weeks the thrush composition made a shift, with Hermit Thrush becoming the most common species (besides American Robin) and taking over the stronghold that Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked had during September. House Wren numbers are on the decrease, slowly being replaced by their tiny and more secretive cousin, the Winter Wren. Keep an eye out for Marsh Wrens in brushy areas and patches of dead cattails throughout the state.
Kinglets have moved in now, with the rest of October being the peak time for Ruby-crowned Kinglet. There are a lot of Cedar Waxwings moving through PA right now, be careful with juvenile waxwings as they may look quite odd right now. Gray Catbird and Brown Thrasher numbers have been on the decrease for the past two weeks, expect them to drop to their winter numbers and retreat to the warmer areas of the state. Northern Mockingbirds will also make a shift southward.
Vagrants and Rarities
Besides the rarities mentioned above, late fall can be one of the best times of the year to stumble across something unusual. Keep an eye out for species like Northern Wheatear and Western Kingbird but know that anything could be possible, like the Townsend’s Solitaire I found during a ‘Big Sit’ recently!
Birds are on the move! Get out and do some birding! If you want, leave me a comment letting me know if my predictions are holding true for your area of the state. Also, if you haven’t started using eBird, right now is the perfect time to start – help make your bird sightings count and become part of a massive citizen-scientist effort to monitor and conserve birds and their habitats. Good luck and be safe out there!