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Birding the Fall Migration


JACK BLACK: (as Brad Harris) There is going to be major fallout in a few hours.

ANTHONY ANDERSON: (as Bill Clemont) Nuclear fallout?

BLACK: (as Brad Harris) Bird fallout.


That's from the movie "The Big Year." And yes, birding is so big these days that Jack Black and Steve Martin actually made a movie about it. Now, if you're excited by bird fallout too, this is your season. We're at the peak of fall bird migration. From mid-summer to December, more than 350 species fly overhead to make the move south. So what birds can we expect to see in the next few weeks? Do you need some tips on spotting your favorite species? Are you having trouble telling your Yellow-rumped Warbler from your Golden-crowned Sparrow?

We're fielding your calls at 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri. Our guest is Kenn Kaufman. He's a naturalist and author of "The Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America" and "The Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding." Welcome to the show.

KENN KAUFMAN: Well, thanks, John. Glad to be here.

DANKOSKY: So, quickly, you're in Ohio, what birds have you seen over this past week?

KAUFMAN: Well, it's actually a week ago I was in Wisconsin. I've been running around and I was actually flying with cranes a week ago. But we're at the peak of the migration, as you mentioned. And this is an exciting time of year for us because, you know, fall migration actually lasts for more than a half the year. It gets going in mid-June and there are still some birds moving in the first week of January. So for people who like migrations, it's something we can enjoy for a long time.

DANKOSKY: And there are a lot big changes between, say, this week and next week and what birds are moving where?

KAUFMAN: That's right, yeah. I mean the different birds have their peak at different times. And you could say that the peak migration is sort of from the middle of August to the middle of November. But different groups are moving at different seasons. So right now we're getting toward the latter part of the big push of the warblers. And for hardcore bird people, the warblers are a really exciting group there.

DANKOSKY: Well, there's a lot of people who are excited about talking about birds. You can call us at 1-800-989-8255 and ask Kenn Kaufman all of your questions. We'll be right back after this short break.


DANKOSKY: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm John Dankosky.

We're talking this hour about the fall bird migration. We're right at the peak. And Kenn Kaufman is here to answer all of your birding questions. Give us a call at 1-800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK or tweet @scifri with the #birdchat. So Kenn, you were talking about it's a good time for warblers. What else is out there? What are you looking for right now?

KAUFMAN: Well, we've got sort of the peak migration of the songbirds now in the northern states. And we're talking about songbirds like thrushes, warblers, vireos, flycatchers. These are relatively small birds, and most of them migrate at night. So the migration isn't obvious, even though there are literally billions of birds moving - that's billions with a B. They're not obvious unless people go out and actively look for them.

DANKOSKY: Who are the first - well, who are the first birds to leave and then who are the last birds to leave at the end of a migration season?

KAUFMAN: OK. Well, the first ones that start moving out west, some of the hummingbirds. Hummingbirds like to be exceptions to the rules anyway.


KAUFMAN: And with male hummingbirds don't take any part in raising the young. After the first date, they're ready to take off. So you've got Rufous Hummingbirds from the Pacific Northwest that are already moving south by about the middle of June. And they'll even be showing up, you know, hundreds of miles south of the nesting range before the end of June. Now some of the shorebirds from the Arctic tundra, some of the sandpipers and plovers will take off before the end of June.

The nesting season is so short there that if their first nesting attempt fails, they'll just leave. And so before the 4th of July, we've already got all these sandpipers and plovers from the far north showing up on mudflats around the lower 48 states. So they're among the early ones, and there are huge numbers of shorebirds moving through in July and August. When you get to the end of the migration, sort of the other bookend, the waterfowl tend to move late. So in November, you have lots of ducks and geese and swans migrating.

And the cranes - Sandhill Cranes are really an interesting case because their migration has been getting later in the fall in recent years. They're not navigating by instinct. They navigate - the young birds learn the route just by following their parents. And their parents are sort of paying attention to the weather. And so they don't go until they have to. And in our part of the Upper Midwest now, the main southward migration of Sandhill Cranes is happening in December.

DANKOSKY: Wow. So, I mean, does this have to do with climate change? It's just warmer temperatures, meaning these birds are leaving later?

KAUFMAN: That does seem to be the case with them. It doesn't affect most of the birds. I mean, most birds are moving on instinct, and they don't wait for cold weather. They're moving just - they're queued into the change of the day length. And so the days start to get shorter and they leave. And they're flying away from territories that are still full of food and have fine weather, but they take off, you know, head for South America. But some of the short distance migrants, some of the waterfowl, like Tundra Swans and the Sandhill Cranes that I mentioned, they may not move until they have to. And so they can adapt and change their pattern quickly as the climate changes.

DANKOSKY: All right. Kenn, you ready to take some calls from people who want to know about birds?

KAUFMAN: Oh, sure. Yeah.

DANKOSKY: Let's hear from Alan(ph). Alan is calling from San Francisco. Hi, Allan.

ALAN: Hi. Hi, Kenn. Let me first say, I highly recommend your book, "Kingbird Highway," if you want to really see what birding is about. Outstanding book. We have an invasion of Blue-footed Boobies along the coast here. And a lot of us have been going out to the coast and spotting them. Any idea why we're getting Blue-footed Boobies?

KAUFMAN: Yeah. I've been reading about that. That's fascinating. And the last time that I know of when there was a really big invasion of them was back in the mid-'70s, so - when I was just a kid. I remember hitchhiking out to the Salton Sea to see the Boobies out there. They're very common off the west coast of Mexico, and I would assume that it's probably some sort of crash in the food supply there. But I've just started hearing about this the last few days and I haven't been able to follow up and find out what's happened to the fish that they feed on off the west coast of Mexico. But it's going to be interesting to see how this develops.

DANKOSKY: Thanks very much, Alan. Sandy is calling from Grand Rapids. Hi, Sandy.


DANKOSKY: You're on the air.

SANDY: I have a question regarding the fact that I've spend - past couple of years, I've been feeding the oriole at my cottage up by Lake Michigan. And this summer, it seemed like they - they come around a lot longer than in previous summers. And I've been trying to find out more information about migration timing on the Internet. And I just can't seem to find any information. Where is a good source to learn more about that?

KAUFMAN: It's true. The information about the timing of migration is really scattered on the Internet. There's actually - I wrote a couple of long blog pieces about timing of migration that were on a blog called Crane Creek Birding at Blogspot. So you could search on that or search on my name and just the words fall migration. Maybe you'd come up with that.

Usually, the orioles are among the earlier migrants and you have - especially orchard orioles will take off in July. And most of the Baltimore orioles leave in early August. So it's interesting that they're sticking around later this year.

DANKOSKY: Do you get a lot - yeah.

KAUFMAN: And it may just be that whatever you're feeding them is really good.

DANKOSKY: Well, I was wondering if you're getting different accounts from people around the country of unusual patterns now and again. We just heard about the blue-footed boobies now, maybe orioles sticking around a little longer. Are you getting a lot of reports of birds leaving later, doing different things?

KAUFMAN: It doesn't seem to be happening with most birds. They - it takes them a while (technical difficulty) changes in climate or changes in weather pattern because so much of it is instinctive. And so you need to have several generations where the, say, the later migrants are somehow favored. They have better survival. Then the timing of the migration will shift later. But for most of them, it's a hardwired thing and they go when instinct tells them to go, and they're not paying attention to the weather.

DANKOSKY: Amy is calling from Washington, D.C. Hi, Amy. You're on with Kenn Kaufman.

AMY: Hi. I was just wanting to ask about a situation that we had in the woods. I teach young children. And I had just read a book, an amazing book called "What the Robin Knows" by Jon Young, and it talked about...

KAUFMAN: Wonderful book.

AMY: ...bird language. Do you know that book?

KAUFMAN: Yes. That's a wonderful book.

AMY: And the concentric rings of bird calls. So I had shared that with the young kids. And we heard some crows alarming and we - and this is in Rock Creek Park, this, you know, pretty urban. And we went over to where the crows were to see what the disturbance was, and they had cornered a great grey owl.

And this just seemed like an impossible thing because they are not supposed to live in our region. But we ID'ed it. We photographed it. We posted it to the, you know, up on Facebook. There's a picture of the bird, and it was a great grey owl in Washington, D.C. Why do you think that would be?

KAUFMAN: Well, that is spectacular. I mean, a great grey owl virtually never gets that far South. I would be interested to see those photographs. But being in Rock Creek Park, I don't know if there's any chance it could have gotten away from the National Zoological Park there.

DANKOSKY: There's always a chance of that. I mean, how often are people able to see migrating birds this time of year in very, very urban settings, here in New York and Washington, D.C.? Are there lots of birds you can still see?

KAUFMAN: Yeah. Absolutely. We often talk about bird flyways, and it's useful to think of them as sort of, like, administrative units for managing populations of migratory birds. But birds when they're migrating, they move on a broad front. And probably every tree in the eastern half of the United States at least is going to be host to some migratory bird at some point during the fall. So going to - sometimes urban parks can be a great to see migrating birds because they're more concentrated there.

In New York City, for example, there are so many square miles of concrete and city and so on that migrating birds in the - up in the air, they'll see that rectangle of Central Park, and they'll go to the green space there. And so often, migrants are more concentrated there than they would be in, say, a woodland a hundred miles west of the city.

DANKOSKY: I think one of the most fascinating this, though, is just how these birds navigate to their migrating runs anyway. So how exactly do they do it? Does each bird have a different mechanism for navigating their way south this time of year?

KAUFMAN: Well, it's still being studied. There's a lot of research still on this, and we really don't know for a lot of birds. For some things like the sandhill cranes that I had mentioned earlier and some of the swans and geese, a lot of it is visual. They're migrating by visual landmarks, and they learn the route from the older birds. And so it's a tradition more than an instinct. But with the smaller birds, a lot of them - a lot of the songbirds are migrating at night, and they can navigate by the stars.

They have the ability to learn the constellations so that even if the - say there were a supernova out there and the Big Dipper changed its configuration, the birds would be able to learn the new pattern of the night sky, and they can sort of zero in on what represents north and navigate by that. They can also detect the Earth's magnetic field and use that for navigation. In the daytime, of course, they can navigate by the sun.

They can hear very low-pitched sounds from a long distance away, so they may be able to hear the sound of the surf beating against the shoreline from many miles away. And they probably have some clues that we don't understand yet.

DANKOSKY: So a last thing for you, Kenn, and I think every wants to know this. Give us a few tips. How do we make our yards a little more bird friendly, especially for birds that are migrating through this time of year?

KAUFMAN: Well, you know, that's a good thing to do because even a small space, just a very small yard, it may not support a big population of nesting birds, but it could be just the stopover site that a migrating bird needs. And the most important thing is just to have native plants. Just put in a few native shrubs and trees. That will, you know, they - most of these long-distance migrants are feeding on insects. So you can't really put out a bird feeder full of insects, but you can just have plants that will provide a resting place for them.

DANKOSKY: Well, Kenn, we've run out of time. Thanks to Kenn Kaufman, naturalist and author of "Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America" and "Kaufman Field Guide to Advance Birding." Happy birding to you, and thanks so much for joining us.

KAUFMAN: OK. Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.