Northland Nature: Grackle flocks add to fall migrants
Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The bird migration of October has been very active. I doubt that I can take a walk during this whole month and not see this movement of birds. They range in size from tiny to quite large. Many are seen in our yards and woods. Others are in wetlands. Diurnal migrants are common, but maybe more take their trips at night.
In the Northland, probably the best-known site to observe these southbound flights is Hawk Ridge. Any time spent there in fall is seldom a disappointment. Huge numbers of broad-winged hawks come by in September. Kettles of hundreds often rise on thermals above the edge of Lake Superior.
With a winter in Central and South America, they were early migrants. Skies in October often hold good numbers of sharp-shinned hawks, red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, turkey vultures and American kestrels. Though not seen by most of us, small saw-whet owls were also very common this month. Flying low at night, they were caught and banded by the dozens at Hawk Ridge.
Maybe the loudest of avian migrants were the Canada geese. During many chilly early mornings and nights, I heard these birds, perhaps miles away. V-flocks may number 50-100, but usually less.
Also loud were the groups of trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes. (These two are maybe the noisiest birds in the area.) Sandpipers, snipes and plovers came by, too. Among woodpeckers, flickers and sapsuckers were September migrants, but I did see both in October.
Songbird migrants are probably more visible and numerous in September, but some kinds are plentiful in October as well.
Not considered a songster, blue jays came across in the hundreds. Hard to find a day when I did not see or hear them, along with crows.
Warblers that were diverse last month have some lingering now, mostly yellow-rumped and palm warblers. Thrushes silently moved in the woods. Tiny kinglets fluttered among the branches. And sparrow-like pipits were seen with tail movement up and down as they walked in the open sites.
But two groups of songbirds that I find quite abundant this month are the sparrows and blackbirds.
There may not be a better time of the whole year to observe kinds of sparrows than the first half of October. To many people, sparrows all look alike — little brown birds. Superficially, they may appear that way, but a closer look reveals different markings of their heads, undersides or tails.
Juncos, a kind of sparrow, are gray-black and stand out from the rest, but they often are with other sparrows, white-throated and white-crowned, when in our yards. Fox, song and Lincoln sparrows are spotted below, while Harris has black markings on the head. Migrant sparrows do not sing much when feeding and resting in our yards and roadsides. Sounds are provided by the flocks of blackbirds.
A few days ago, the backyard became a jumble of creaks and calls as a migrating flock of grackles settled while southbound. Finding food of various seeds, they gobbled as they crackled. The sound of such a flock, often mixed with various blackbirds — red-winged, Brewers and rusty — is a delightful sound of migration in both spring and fall. They may not always be appreciated.
One October day, I watched as these dark, foot-long birds descended on a newly stocked bird feeder and remained until every seed was devoured. Flocks may be in the hundreds as they restlessly move through the region. Southern grackle wintering flocks can be even larger than what we see now in late October.