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Pipits join migrants now in the region

The clear days of late October are very inviting to go for a walk or other leisure activity in the outdoors. During my daily wanderings either walking or biking, I have observed much of the happenings of the latter days of this amazing month. As ...

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An American Pipit rests and feeds in roadside bare ground before resuming its southern flight. (Photo by Larry Weber)

The clear days of late October are very inviting to go for a walk or other leisure activity in the outdoors. During my daily wanderings either walking or biking, I have observed much of the happenings of the latter days of this amazing month. As we reach the final week of October, the tree colors, so dominant earlier, have largely subsided, but I still see lingering aspens and tamaracks while the silver maples and weeping willows continue to hold their yellow foliage.

Most of the leaves of deciduous trees have fallen and we can now see deeper into the woods than before. While walking here, I find wood ferns, mosses and princess pines still green among the downed leaves. But I see no mushrooms. The forest is nearly devoid of mushrooms that are often here late in the season, a testimony to the dryness of earlier weeks. Along the road a few hardy flowers -clovers, asters, sunflowers and yarrows - linger with blossoms despite the chill and frosts.

Insects are nearly all gone, but I note the presence of a few grasshoppers and crickets in the grasses, colonies of white woolly aphids in alders and crane flies performing a rising-falling flight in the afternoon sunlight. This is the time when a couple of moths, one immature and one adult, catch our attention. Woolly bear caterpillars, the young (larvae) of the Isabella tiger moth, are frequently seen now as they move about in their brown-black suits, seeking sites for the winter. The adult moths now active are the strange late-season cankerworms and linden loopers. Coping with the cold, even when the temperature is in the '30s, these nocturnal moths still take flight. Lights in the house will attract them to our windows. Since their adult flight is in late October, I have often called them "World Series" moths.

Other critters show their own autumn actions. Chipmunks and squirrels gather food for caches. Deer mice try to enter our houses. And snakes go off for hibernation sites. But it is the migrant birds that seem to get the greatest notice during these days.

We might see or hear the large geese, swans, ducks, hawks or eagles, but songbirds continue their movement too, often in our yards or roadsides. Recently, I have been watching their daily changes as they work their way to warmer southern climates for the winter. Nearly every day, I find robins, bluebirds or blue jays passing through. Breeding in the Northland, they now depart for southern states. Others move here from summers further north. Each day in the yard and roadsides, I have been finding white-throated, white-crowned and fox sparrows. They have been joined by flocks of juncos. None appear to be in a hurry to move on, but usually they do not winter here.

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Other sights of note have been tree sparrows, Lapland longspurs and snow buntings. Breeding in the far north, we do not see these birds until the autumn has advanced. Most stay for a while, but continue to move. These small birds, all types of sparrows, are normally in flocks. But as I biked a few days ago, I saw a migrant making the trip alone, a pipit.

Pipits, better known as American pipits (formerly called water pipits), are a regular, though never abundant, part of the fall flight. I see them every year either alone, as this one was, or in small flocks. Though only about six inches long and appearing much like a sparrow in its gray-speckled attire with white outer tail feathers, they are not a sparrow or a finch. Pipits belong to a family of birds called wagtails. This name refers to the constant movement of the caudal appendage.

The American pipit is our most common member of this family. A western species called Sprague's pipit lives in the prairies and occasionally shows up in Minnesota. American pipits breed in the far north, tundra and alpine settings and winter in the southern states. We are on their route as they travel from summer home to winter residence. Most don't stay here for a long time and like the one that I saw, they are seen walking on the bare soil, wagging their tails. Here they take meals of seeds and any insects still active that they are able to find to help them on their long flight to come.

I feel fortunate to have seen this passing migrant and like many of the other avian life here now, they add much to these autumn days of late October.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com .

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