During the days of mid-October, it is hard to not notice seasonal changes. We now have about 11 hours of daylight. The trees that were so colorful a couple weeks ago are now dropping this same foliage.

This annual arboreal event opens up the landscape. We can see further into the woods. Not all deciduous trees become defoliated at this time. Those still with leaves will be shedding by month’s end. In addition to leaves leaving, there continues to be the avian migration; myriad birds are heading south.

Canada geese that began their fall flight nearly two months ago are still on wing. It’s an unusual morning walk without hearing these loud honkers.

Ducks of several species, along with grebes and coots are also on the move. I have watched many as they pause en route, but they don’t stay here long.

At Hawk Ridge, the raptor flight has changed, but continues. While the large numbers of broad-winged hawks flew over a month ago, they were replaced by hundreds of sharp-shinned hawks. These accipiters do not fly in big flocks as seen with broad-winged, but they do come by regularly and low enough to be seen well. October is a great time to see bald eagles and turkey vultures. And at night, the diminutive saw-whet owls are also migrating.

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Not as large as the waterfowl or raptors, songbirds are southing, too. Flocks of blue jays have been obvious, but groups of robins are passing as well. Warblers that migrated in much of September left us with quite a show as the month exited. The final species to move through, the yellow-rumped warbler, was also the most abundant. And often with them were the sparrows.

Early October may be the best time of year to see a variety of sparrows. We have a blending of these small birds. Ones that nested here are still lingering with others that were breeding further north. The local residents still present include song, swamp and Savannah sparrows.

They may be joined by northern arrivals who pause on their migration flight. Among these visitors are white-throated, white-crowned, fox, Harris, tree sparrows and juncos. Their stay is temporary and after feeding and resting (maybe for much of the month), they will be going further south and not winter with us.

A white-crowned sparrow. Note the white above the head, not on the throat. (Photo by Mark Sparky Stensaas)
A white-crowned sparrow. Note the white above the head, not on the throat. (Photo by Mark Sparky Stensaas)

While here, they can be seen in a variety of places, often along roadsides, but woods, parks and yards will provide needed shelter and food for the travelers, and maybe our feeders as well.

To many, sparrows look like little brown birds — all similar. No doubt, they can be difficult to discern, but with binoculars and references, they can be identified. Except for the gray and black juncos, nearly all have much brown on the body and are 5-7 inches long. But noting the colors on the head and spots (or lack of) on the undersides, they can be discerned.

One of the most common is the white-throated sparrow. Often seen in yards, including feeders, they are a good one to get to know. They do have the diagnostic white on the throat, but also white markings on the head (sometimes with yellow) and can be confused with another present visitor: the white-crowned sparrow. While both have white above the head, the former has a white throat.

These two, as well as other sparrows now here add much to the fall. By this time next month, they will nearly all be gone; now is October sparrow watching.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber