By Andrew Melnykovych
In his Field Guide to the Birds, Roger Tory Peterson, the godfather of American birding, devoted two pages to illustrating “confusing fall warblers.”
Which pretty much summarizes birding in the fall.
All those warblers and other migrants that headed north a few months ago in distinctive colors are now headed in the opposite direction, with a sizeable portion of them molted into distressingly similar shades of gray, green, yellow, greenish gray, greenish yellow, grayish green – well you, get the picture. If you don’t, then check out Peterson.
The seasonal dulling down is perhaps best known among some warblers. Male Chestnut-sided, Blackpoll and Bay-breasted warblers lose much of their bright spring plumage before heading south. Telling them apart takes some practice, especially when you mix in with them birds born this summer, in juvenile plumages that add to the confusion.
Similar fall confusion occurs in many other groups of birds. Many shorebirds differ so much from breeding to non-breeding plumage that you could be excused for thinking them to be completely unrelated. Among sparrows, juvenile Chipping Sparrows are notoriously easy to mistake for other species.
And then there are the small flycatchers of the genus Empidonax, which look so similar even in the spring that often the only sure way to tell them apart is by their voice. In the fall, they are generally and frustratingly silent. This is why most checklists include a line for Empid sp. (Empidonax species), for those inevitable times when you simply aren’t able to distinguish one from the other.
Therefore, fall birding may require more patience and attention to detail than birding in the spring.
But with the challenges come rewards.
Due to their migration patterns, some species are more likely to be seen in the fall. Most shorebirds are far more common at this time of year, though they are limited in Jefferson County by a lack of suitable habitat.
Olive-sided Flycatchers and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers (one of those pesky Empid types) also are seen more often in the fall. So are both Sedge Wrens and Marsh Wren .
Best of all, getting out in the fall will make you a better birder, because you will be forced to rely on more than just color and voice to identify birds. You will find yourself focusing on clues such as behavior, body shape and posture, flight patterns, and other factors you might not need to call on in the spring.
There are ample opportunities to practice those skills in The Parklands, where you are likely to encounter many fall migrants.
If there has been enough rain to leave standing water in low-lying areas, look for shorebirds in wet fields with grass that is less than a foot or 18 inches tall. If there is enough standing water, you might also find some migrating ducks, such as Blue-winged Teal.
Olive-sided Flycatchers are fond of hunting from the tallest dead branch they can find. They are regularly seen at this time of year along Floyds Fork in the Grand Allee section of Beckley Creek Park.
Also making an appearance in the Grand Allee are Marsh Wrens, which frequent the cattail-filled wetlands. They are noisy little birds, so you are likely to hear them before you see them.
With milder weather and fall colors to enjoy, birding at this time of year is still a pleasure. And if you want some help in learning how to identify those confusing fall warblers, Louisville’s Beckham Bird Club often conducts field trips in The Parklands. Non-members are welcome, and the veterans are always willing to assist beginners. A full schedule of trips can be found on the club’s website at http://www.beckhambirdclub.org/field-trips.html.
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