Turning the calendar to August 1 does little to turn the relentless summer into fall.
The so-called “summer slump”, which is in full swing, seems to offer little or no excitement for birdwatching, and the withered dying flowers seem to offer little to the birds themselves.
For many birds, however, August marks the end of the breeding season, the start of migration and the return to their wintering grounds.
Their fledglings are out of the nest, mostly fending for themselves, with no access to any avian version of unemployment and no chance to return home. For them, it’s do or die. So, do parent birds suffer from empty nest syndrome? They have no more twigs and grasses to gather and weave into nests, no more eggs to hatch or babies to feed or learn to fly. Life has to be a cruise on Easy Street, right?
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Bad. Between the end of the breeding season and the start of migration (or the start of winter for remaining birds), birds moult, replacing most, if not all, of their feathers. Feather regeneration zaps major energy, so birds, less agile during moulting due to lack of feathers, tend to hide, nestling in dense vegetation, eating and resting.
Some birds, however, are already moving. Usually the first to sail south, shorebirds are now scurrying in groups of two along the region’s mudflats wherever some of that rare rain has fallen. Although these first arrivals may be birds that have suffered nesting failures and therefore left their arctic breeding grounds prematurely, by mid-August many species of shorebirds arrive in waves.
During the doldrums of summer, some birds that do not usually breed here, disperse from their usual breeding grounds to explore. So birdwatchers are adding rare species to their lists of local birds during this not-so-boring doldrums after all. Already this season, birders have spotted flocks of great egrets and little blue herons with two notable early sightings in the state: limpkin and anhinga.
But the wanderers haven’t been around long, disappearing south long before any cold weather.
For now, however, Violet Swallows, Chimney Swifts, and Barn and Tree Swallows have started to congregate. They round up the troops, including extended families, before heading south, perhaps to catch up on neighborhood news and gossip, meet all the new kids and grandkids. They fill trees, line electrical wires and feed in flocks of sometimes thousands.
Besides migratory birds targeting winter getaways, there is no shortage of other late summer activities. Young birds sample backyard habitats, measuring them for available food, water, and shelter to survive the coming winter. The fledgling indigo buntings disappear into the crowd of house finches and other odd brown jobs. Unlike the rest of their feathered cohabitants, however, the goldfinches gorged themselves, picking up extra pounds of seed, fueling the energy for their very late nesting.
Blue jays, in their usual Jekyll-and-Hyde fashion, have become silently stealthy while nesting; so their reappearance elicits sighting and listening treats for birdwatchers.
For the birds that have come here for the summer to mate, nest and raise their young, they are preparing to do what for us mere humans is unimaginable: take their bodies an ounce or two in the air and fly a few thousand miles, mostly at night, relying on DNA fingerprinting to find the way to where they’re supposed to go and know when they get there.
Maybe the summer doldrums should be called summer delights.
For more information on birds and their habitat, see Sharon Sorenson’s books, How Birds Behave, Birds in the Yard Month by Month, and Planting Native to Attract Birds to Your Yard. Check out her website at birdsintheyard.com, follow daily bird activity on Facebook at SharonSorensonBirdLady, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.