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Fall Birding: Uncertainly Predictable

Fall Birding: Uncertainly Predictable

Written by Andrew Melnykovych, Vice President of The Beckham Bird Club

Fall migration and fall weather in Louisville are very much alike: predictably unpredictable.

That only makes sense, given the extent to which the weather influences migration.

Migrants are programmed by genetics and evolution to head south at the time that food becomes scarce of their nesting grounds. The predictability of those migratory habits is why birders know when to expect certain species to arrive in our area. 

But once the birds get moving, the weather often determines how quickly they arrive, where they land, and how long they linger.

Heavy rains – and we’ve had plenty of those this fall - will inundate the few shallow areas of mudflat that are suitable feeding and resting habitat for sandpipers and other shorebirds (among our earliest arrivals) coming down from the Arctic or the northern prairies. On the other hand, enough rain also will create temporary lakes or wetlands, drawing not only those same shorebirds but also ducks and other waterfowl.

In the fall, strong winds out of the south, particularly when accompanied by heavy rain, will force tired and hungry migrating songbirds to the ground. These “fallouts” can produce spectacularly good birding if the timing is right because huge numbers of birds can suddenly appear. If the clouds and rain persist, the migrants may linger as well.

Conversely, clear skies and strong north winds will keep migrants moving. They may sail right over the top of our area, and we’ll see smaller numbers of whatever species might be expected at that time.

Then there is always the possibility of the remnants of a Gulf of Mexico hurricane coming our way, bringing with it seabirds that are extremely rare in our area.

All of which is to say that birding at this time of year is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates – you just never know what might turn up. 

That element of uncertainty is what makes birding at this time of year so much fun. October is past the peak of most songbird migration, and most of our summer visitors have already headed south. But some warblers are still moving through in good numbers and other migrants – wrens, for example – are just starting to turn up. There are also the late-migrating shorebirds and the first contingents of the many species that will be spending the winter here.

Of the 178 species of birds recorded in the northern section of The Parklands, 110 have been seen in October. Only September (112), May (117) and April (124) have had more species observed.  And October has the added advantage of having Louisville’s lowest average monthly rainfall, so the conditions for humans venturing out in search of birds are likely to be more favorable. 

If you are interested in a guided hike with Andrew and Interpretive Rangers, join us on Saturday, October 13 at 8AM in Pope Lick Park for Parklands Explorer: Birds and their Ecological Functions. 

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