On September 17, 2014

The Outside Story: Staycation geese and southbound juncos

By Carolyn Lorié

This has always been my perception of bird migration in the fall: the days grow short and cool and then, one day, I notice a v-shaped caravan of Canada geese flying southward. Then another and another. Within a few weeks of that first sighting, I hear their melancholy call one final time for the season. Then they, and all the summer birds, are gone. It’s a mass exodus for warmer climes, over and done in the blink of an eye and long before the snow flies.

But what of the geese on the unfrozen mill ponds in January? Or the robins at the birdfeeder in December? It turns out that the process of migration is much longer and less predictable than my cursory observations had led me to believe.

First of all, for some species, fall migration begins long before the first ears of corn are ready to be picked. Take, for example, the yellow warbler, whose massive breeding range extends from parts of Mexico to Newfoundland and into Alaska. It is among the earliest songbirds to arrive in the spring and among the first to embark on the return journey.

According to Andrew Farnsworth, a research associate with the Cornell Lab for Ornithology, birders in northern New England may notice yellow warblers in the area from the end of April to as late as mid-September, and conclude that the birds stay for all those months. But that’s not what is going on.

The birds that settle in our area in the spring start the breeding cycle earlier than those that go on to nest in northern Canada or Alaska. By late June or early July, the newly hatched yellow warblers of our region fledge. They and their parents start their journey back to Central and South America. But their departure does not mean the absence of the species in our area, as yellow warblers from more northern areas, and therefore later breeding cycles, will begin passing through. We get the pleasure of the yellow warblers’ presence from April through September–just not the same individual birds.

Some birds, like the dark-eyed junco, we see year-round, giving the impression that they are non-migratory. But, again, this not entirely accurate, says Farnsworth. Some juncos may stay put in northern New England right through winter. But those tend be the birds that are behaviorally dominant–that is, they are able to secure a desirable territory, keeping competition at bay. Less dominant birds may be forced to migrate to southern regions in search of food, and their departure may take place as late as December.

While fall and winter mark the departure of many birds from our region, it can also be a time of arrival for a few species. Among them are common redpolls, who make their home in the arctic tundra and boreal forests, and pine siskins, who tend to be year-round residents in the more southern areas of Canada and mountainous regions in the western United States. These birds are known as “irruptive migrants,” meaning they will move only if food in their usual territory becomes scarce. So one year you may see large flocks of common redpolls at your feeder, but not a single one the following year.

This fall, as I watch a flock of Canada geese fade from sight, I will know that it is neither the beginning nor the end of the season’s migration. It turns out that birds’ seasonal movement is a long and complex process that varies bird by bird, and from one year to the next.

Carolyn Lorié lives with her two rescue dogs and very large cat in Thetford, Vermont. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation: wellborn@nhcf.org.

Do you want to submit feedback to the editor?

Send Us An Email!

Related Posts

Lessons abroad, Vermont recharge

June 12, 2024
Building a Killington Dream Lodge, part 17  What a difference a year can make. I was really excited about the changes taking place in our Killington ski lodge while I was away attending Schiller College Paris my sophomore year and Graz Center for the second summer. Meanwhile, in Vermont once the roof was done, Dad…

June: ‘bloom whereyou are planted’

June 12, 2024
June is usually thought of as the beginning of summer. School is out, we open our summer houses and maybe plan a vacation. I was given a book called “The Big Book of 30-Day Challenges” written by Rosanna Casper. It sat on a table for a long time with me just looking at it every…

Summer vacation for students in the 50s

June 12, 2024
Whether it’s 2024 or 1954 kids share the enthusiasm that comes from being on school vacation during the summer months. However, the way that their free time is spent has few similarities. As often happens when my weekly breakfast group gets together we take a “look back” at various things and recently we recalled what…

Secrets of early summer

June 12, 2024
Shhhh. Don’t tell anybody, but this is one of my all time favorite weeks of the year. The one where I make myself so exhausted that I am asleep before my head even hits the pillow. The one where I am up with the sunrise for no reason except that I cannot wait for the…