Although Spring’s explosion of greenery after a long winter, the return of songbirds, and the promise of new life makes it my favourite season, the transition into Autumn runs a very close second. From August through November, growth cycles may be winding down, leaves are falling, and many birds desert us for the warmer south, but there is still much to see and experience at Colonel Samuel Smith Park. I’ve captured some of my favourite images during this season, and would like you to join me on a visual journey, with images gathered from my visits to the park over the years.
This truly is a season of change…suddenly, large swaths of meadow turn bright yellows with goldenrod and counterpointed by the mauves of the asters. The greens of summer are accented with the bright tones of butterflies and the reds of staghorn sumac. There is no subtlety to the colours of autumn, making it hard to be sad about summer’s departure. These wildflowers, plants, and shrubs are among those inextricably connected with two important migrations that take place at this time: Those of birds and Monarch butterflies. This time we’ll talk about the many birds that use the different habitats at Colonel Samuel Smith Park as a stopover to feed and rest, as well as some of the park’s resident species.
There is a “winding down” feeling, what with the frantic business of constructing nests, incubating eggs, and feeding young finally ending. Birds who breed in the park, like the Red-necked Grebes, are usually feeding large chicks and have abandoned their nesting platforms in the harbour–which are then immediately taken over by cormorants as roosting rafts. I have come across grebes with downy chicks in September; these little ones have to grow quickly before it’s time to leave in late fall.
Many species of birds that breed as far north as the Arctic circle follow the same routes south each late summer and autumn, following food sources and weather patterns. The pure insectivores (swallows, swifts) are among the first to leave, followed by thrushes, warblers, vireos, flycatchers, hummingbirds, sparrows, creepers, and kinglets. Some species that usually eat insects adapt to consuming berries or seeds; they need as much nutritious food as possible to survive their long journey.
Many young birds are still trying to grow quickly enough to be able to escape the cold winter weather; young goldfinches and cardinals are often heard into October, still begging for food from their parents. Juvenile raptors (hawks, falcons) and fish-eating waterbirds (herons, egrets, cormorants) are still learning to hone their hunting skills.
Many warblers and vireos moult into drab winter plumage, making field identification difficult, and immature birds can add even more confusion.
Fall migration for many songbirds lasts longer but is more “stretched-out” than it is in spring, beginning in August but lasting to late October. Yet on favourable days with SE tailwinds, the trees and shrubs can seem to be swarming with different species, similar to spring. Late-departing Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned kinglets dart around, making their distinctive three-note, reedy calls.
Migrating sparrows of different species will mix together and the underbrush can seem alive with them. On warm fall days, male White-throated Sparrows will occasionally sing their spring song; chickadees, cardinals and robins do the same.
American Goldfinches nest late in the park and surrounding areas, ensuring that there will be an abundance of thistle and milkweed seeds for both nesting material and to feed their young. Rather than migrating far south, goldfinches move southward where the average January temperature is no less than -17C.
Every fall, in early October, American Pipits stop by along the rocky outcroppings in the park to pick around for insects and seeds. They’re returning from the high tundra, where they breed in summer.
Even though the park doesn’t have the best shorebird habitat, some migrants still stop in along the beaches to rest and feed in the fall.
Double-crested Cormorants begin leaving, and diving and dabbling ducks begin to move through. Diving ducks can form huge staging flocks just offshore, and take advantage of the good feeding in the harbour and the pond.
Sometimes, the internal navigational wiring is faulty, and some birds wander far from their usual home ranges; sometimes, high winds from hurricanes in the southeast will blow rare and unusual species off course and into our back yard. Col. Samuel Smith Park is no stranger to visits from rare birds; birders and photographers will often travel far to see them and add them to their life lists.
Not a rarity but rarely seen due to their secretive habits, usually hidden behind tall wetland reeds, Least Bitterns have been recorded in late summer/fall for several years now.
Nesting near or in the park and always watching with sharp eyes are the avian apex predators such as Peregrine Falcons and Cooper’s Hawks, looking for careless birds. Occasionally, migrating Ospreys stop by for a quick seafood meal.
Join me next time for an article on the great Monarch butterfly migration in Col. Sam Smith Park and more.