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The Autumnal Flight

( Originally Published 1910 )



ALMOST before one can realize it, the season of nesting has slipped away from us, and we are confronted with the conditions of autumn, when we may again greet the passing procession of migrants and must say goodbye to them and to our summer birds. It gives a sort of uncanny feeling to realize that the birds which, seemingly, only a few days ago were singing and nesting, have now reared their young and silently departed, soon to be hundreds or thousands of miles away.

While we are still watching the late broods in their nests, the autumnal flight has set in. The first symptom of this, to be observed mostly along the sea-coast, is the appearance of bands of shore-bird migrants even in July. But the more universal sign is the flocking of various land-birds. Even before they migrate they gather into flocks. As we traverse the country road in August, we note the straggling bands of various sparrows that keep flying up along the roadsides. They are mostly chipping, song, field and vesper sparrows, with savanna sparrows where these are common, and now and then some others. Their plumages are now so juvenile or worn that it is hard to distinguish the nervous little dodgers. No doubt there is many a rarity among them which we let go unrecognized. If only each sparrow species were distinct in color, we should find many a good thing. Even as it is, we are always liable to see some bird of special interest in these motley companies. One day, as I drove along a country road, a flock of chippies flew up and alighted on the fence, and among them was a pure white one, a complete albino, a rare freak. Two weeks later I was driving about a mile from that place, when, lo and behold, there was my white chippy again!

Even more noticeable than the flocking of sparrows is that of the swallows and of the various blackbirds. The former will be seen in long rows on the wires, or flying over water, swamps, or marshes. The various species flock together. They begin to gather in July, but more noticeably in August, which is also true of the blackbirds. Crow blackbirds and red-wings swarm on the marshes in united armies. The former by themselves gather in compact flocks in towns and perform varied evolutions in the air, dashing over houses with a roar of wings like thunder. The bobolinks had reared their young by early July, and began flocking forthwith. By the latter part of July the black and white males are in a mottled plumage, changing to the yellowish-striped garb of the female and young," reed-birds," or rice-birds," they are now called, thoroughly changed in character. In some sections the European starling has entered the field as a symptom of autumn, and they too gather in large flocks, sometimes associated with the other blackbirds. -The meadowlarks or " marsh quails," are also flocking in fields and marshes.

In August also begins quite a movement among the warblers. Few of them raise two broods, unless it be the yellow-throat; they are prompt in beginning and swift to finish. Before June is over, most of their young are strong on wing. Forthwith they be-gin to ramble, and even by early August individuals of several species have begun to work their passage south. The blue-winged and golden-winged are among the first to leave or to appear in new localities, likewise the Canadian and chestnut-sided warblers. During the last half of August we may see almost any of the warblers, though they seem few and hard to find. But with September their numbers greatly increase. Some days one can see hardly any, and again they are abundant, though in a different way from their appearance in spring.

We need not now expect them in the orchard and garden; the proper place is the woodland and swamp. Shrubbery near water is a favorite resort, but they also straggle through the woods, duller in plumage than in the spring, and the young of many of them are particularly hard to distinguish. Some of them are gone by the very first part of September, but most species are found till early October, and a number till late in that month. Early September is often hot and summer-like, and during the first half, under such circumstances, birds will seem very scarce. But let it turn cool, and the migratory wave starts along.

The abundance of migrants at any date varies greatly from year to year. My notes record that one September birds were scarce up to the middle, and then a perfect flood of migration set in. On the seventeenth I wrote down that the numbers of black-poll warblers in the woods were almost beyond be-lief, and many other birds were found in profusion. But a year later at the same date birds were very scarce, and through September it was hard to find a blackpoll. Not till the middle of October did I note any large tide of these birds.

To find birds in the autumn we must depend almost wholly on seeing rather than hearing. Sharp eyes rather than ears now count. The songless warblers hardly seem like the same birds that in spring were constantly breaking forth into joy. The little lisp or chirp which they emit seldom has any distinguishing quality. It simply makes us aware of the presence of a bird, and we must hunt each one to see what it is. We may well be thankful if they make any sound at all.

The flocking of certain other birds which I have not mentioned is noticeable in September. That of the nighthawks then reaches its climax. Some days during the earlier part of the month they keep passing in straggling bands, but the flight began in August, and by the middle of September nearly all have left us, though a few may be seen later,. The chimney swifts are another curious clan. They will suddenly, arrive in a great loose flock in the same locality year after year. Flying about actively till after sundown, they suddenly begin to pour in a stream down a certain wide chimney, their chosen roost, to which they resort at each return. Sometimes they continue to pour in for half an hour, until there are thousands inside clinging like bats to the bricks, in which restful attitude they pass the night. It is a great sight, at its best resembling the revolving funnel-cloud of a tornado. But there are people and we cannot blame them who dislike the dirt and noise and put a wire screen over the chimney-top to keep them out.

Most of the swallows forsake us in September, the purple martins usually leaving first, but the white-bellied or tree swallows remain late. They are often still quite common about the middle of October, and I have seen them up to the very last of the month. Those who have watched a flock of these swallows drink in unison have seen a very pretty sight in bird life. A large flock of them are flitting about irregularly over a large body of water. Suddenly, as though at a signal, every member of the flock darts for the surface of the water, and all dip their bills at the same instant, making a noise like the first dash of the rain in a violent squall. Then they all dart up-wards and turn, their wings causing a roaring sound as of the wind in the tree-tops.

In early autumn various small fruits and berries are ripe, such as black cherries, grapes, poke-berries, etc. Many birds gather to feed upon these, notably robins and cedar-birds, but many kinds of birds will try a hand at them, flickers, bluebirds, various thrushes, finches, orioles, and others. The ruffed grouse is fond of such things, and I have seen them stay to eat longer than was prudent at the approach of the hunter. Sometime the shrubbery by the roadsides is very much alive with these various lovers of fruit, and it is a pretty sight.

There is in the fields a distinctive flavor of these late summer and early autumn conditions which is especially attractive. It is the time of ripening fruits, of harvesting of grain, of hayfields swept and garnished. Bobolinks and blackbirds flock to the grain-fields to glean as well as to pillage, and so do the pretty mourning doves. I enjoy flushing straggling flocks of the latter and watching them go kiting off at their swift and even pace. The meadowlarks are there too, and their attractive browns and yellows blend charmingly with the yellowing of grass and grain. The host of the various finches and sparrows is in evidence. Along the edge of the fields or in the scattered trees is a good sort of a place to find various flycatchers.

The September woodland has its special charm. While the general aspect is like summer, the sight of occasional bright leaves and berries and a peculiar cooling and fragrance in the air impart a delicious feeling, call it autumnal anticipation. The migrant birds encountered strengthen this feeling. Among those that seem especially characteristic is the yellow-bellied woodpecker, or sapsucker. It is a beautiful bird, and somehow I seem more apt to meet it in autumn than in the spring. This last is notably true of the Connecticut warbler, that retiring traveler, characteristic of the cool, moist woodland, which is rare in spring, but in September at times becomes almost common. Somehow I love to hunt them out and feel that I am witnessing an annual event, What delight it gives to strike a warbler day in the woods when the flight is well on, and we are meeting, every now and then, the mixed parties from which we try to pick out the various species. Another characteristic migrant is the blue-headed vireo, noticeable from the distinct white ring around the eye. Then there is the demure and shadowy olive-backed thrush back amid the shrubbery, and the other thrushes as well. The ruffed grouse whirs off, almost invisible through the thick leaves. We are encountering far more hawks than could have been seen in summer. Now and then a solitary one, of almost any kind, may glide through the trees, or overhead they may be straggling past in scattering flocks, in any of which various species may be represented. Many of them are the young birds, and this is the time of year to see them in numbers.

Rapidly does the aspect of things change with October, the period when Nature is in gaudy array, of nuts, of frosty mornings, and glorious bracing air.

The frosts bring flights of water-fowl to swamps and waters, and of woodcock to the moist cover. In the meadow we may look for the Wilson's snipe that darts up, no easy target for the gunner, and the last of the rails, that flutter from the world of tangle, all too easy a mark. Juncos and white-throated sparrows flit before us almost anywhere. The lisp of the kinglets and brown creeper is again to be heard, with the quaint gutturals of the two nuthatches, of which the red-breasted is the typical one which we are glad to see. The last of the warbler migration is passing, the more tender kinds having gone long since.

Among our hardier delinquents are the black-throated green, black-throated blue, blackpoll, yellow palm, and myrtle warblers, the latter being the hardiest of all, the only one which may dare to winter with us. The winter wren is back, to dodge among the brush-heaps and other debris a mouse of a bird it is. This is the time for the rusty grackle to flock again along the meadows, and the pipit on the dry open fields, when flocking robins, bluebirds, various finches, red-wings, and last flocks of tree swallows are in evidence. One by one the last of the remaining summer birds are seen and the winter residents appear, most of the real northerners not till the month is over.

As there is a charm to October, so there is to November. The birds have now came mostly to a winter basis, but the country has opened its portals to us. With the fall of the leaves we can see long distances through the woods, and watch the grouse and woodcock whir off through the bare trees. The temperature is just right for vigorous exercise. The wonderful haze of " Indian Summer " is in the air. If there are steep hills, it is a delight to explore their wooded recesses, or to gain the summits and look off over the panorama of loveliness. The snow and ice have not yet come, to make the walking laborious, and it is a splendid time to explore and find new bird-haunts for the coming season. Many of the nests once so successfully hidden are now open to our view, and we gain ideas as to where to look for certain nests when June returns. The climbs which in July or August would nearly have melted us can now be taken with-out either perspiration or chill, and with exhilaration.



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