Pete Dunne on the riches of birding in late summer

8/7/2017 | 1

Yellow Warbler in northwest Iowa photographed by Linda Petersen.

Yellow Warbler in northwest Iowa photographed by Linda Petersen.

August ranks among the richest of birding months. Southbound shorebirds are near peak diversity, and many songbird species are starting their southern push. One day in early August, I was privileged to be standing on the banks of Great Bear Lake in Arctic Canada and was astounded by the number of migrating warblers bunched up along the rocky shoreline.

Farther south, at established hawk-watching junctions, a few raptors can always be counted upon to make an August appearance including Bald Eagle, Osprey, Broad-winged Hawk, and American Kestrel. Watch the weather and enjoy the parade.

In my corner of the planet, Cape May, New Jersey, the southbound migration of Yellow Warbler peaks during the first week of August; the exodus of American Redstart and Northern Waterthrush peaks at month’s end. A passing cold front any time in August will make the air vibrate with the wind-chime call notes of Bobolink. Every evening tens of thousands of Purple Martins funnel into phragmites flanking the Maurice River to spend the night. Purple Martin roosts are widely scattered across eastern North America and form the centerpiece for several bird festivals.

In some fortunate locations, Common Nighthawks are still common enough for birdwatchers to see their evening show as the birds begin their exodus. In my youth, during late August, I used to delight in sitting out and watching the twilight-dimmed sky fill with the V-winged forms — scores, sometimes hundreds of nighthawks might be viewed before darkness closed.

Contributing Editor Pete Dunne, courtesy of New Jersey Audubon.

Contributing Editor Pete Dunne, courtesy of New Jersey Audubon.

One momentous day in early September, in Cape May, under strong northwest winds, I detected a clustered kettle of migrating birds high over the lighthouse. Binoculars disclosed, to my astonished eyes, a flock of Common Nighthawks, migrating in broad daylight and using thermals to gain lift in the manner of Broad-winged Hawks. I had no idea nighthawks engaged in this behavior, and I wonder how many people know about this.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are yet another August migrant. At the hawk watch in Cape May, it is not uncommon to see their solitary forms zipping by at the rate of three to five an hour. Before you can shout “hummingbird,” they’re gone — the name is about two syllables too long.

Eastern Kingbirds are more social and obliging, migrating in small, well-spaced aggregations that announce their arrival with strident chatter, then meander a bit.

Orchard Orioles are more circumspect, but after the passage of a cold front, the colorful blackbirds may be counted upon to festoon the forested edges of fields. Speaking of blackbirds, it always surprises me to see numbers of Red-winged Blackbirds on the move in August since the big blackbird push comes in October and November. But this vanguard movement, involving hundreds of birds, is hard to ignore as ball-shaped clouds of Red-wingeds wind their way south.

While most ducks are late fall migrants, some species are on the move in August. Throughout the month, American Wigeon and Blue-winged Teal have a talent for appearing on ponds and sloughs where only yesterday they’d been absent. In fact, I consider the piped, two-note whistle of American Wigeon the signal for autumn to begin.

August seems also to be a month when less-common species make their appearance. The burly Lark Sparrow is an uncommon vagrant in my area, but August is the month to find it. On beaches, among the ranks of flocks of Common and Forster’s Terns, southbound Arctic and Roseate Terns are the sought-after prizes. Black Terns? Yes, the bat-like terns are August migrants, too.

Yet for all its bird riches, August seems to get short shrift from birders. So this August, buck the trend: When the winds turn northerly, visit a migrant trap near you and get a jump on autumn migration and your August-oblivious birding friends. Who knows what you’ll find, which is reason enough to get out there. Right?

Then, after beating the bush, head for your local hawk watch to catch the parade of early raptor migrants. Kestrels tend to be afternoon migrants, and Bald Eagles and Broad-wingeds like thermals to boost them aloft. No raptors? Try searching a drought-stricken lakeshore or the local sod farm for shorebird migrants. Must be an American Golden-Plover or Buff-breasted or Upland Sandpiper around here somewhere.

Pete Dunne is New Jersey Audubon’s birding ambassador at-large. He is the author of Birds of Prey: Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, and Vultures of North America (2017), The Art of Bird Identification: A Straightforward Approach to Putting a Name to the Bird (2016), and other books about birds. And he writes our wide-ranging column “Birder at Large.” 

A version of this column appeared in the August 2017 issue of BirdWatching.

Pete Dunne discusses writing, his favorite authors, Cape May, and more 

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  • Kori Gasaway

    I’ve seen a group of five or so kettling Nighthawks in late August here in Ohio!