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Shorebird migration is happening now

A southbound solitary sandpiper wades and feeds in the edge of a pond. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 2
A black-bellied plover in its autumn plumage rests along a shore during its migration flight. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 2

For the first time since April, we have sunrise after 6 a.m. With sunset now at 8:20 p.m., we see the daylight getting shorter each day.

These late summer days are filled with responses to the shorter daylight. We are seeing the flowering of plants that have been growing from early summer more and more every day. This group of native wildflowers dominates the open lands: asters (usually white or purple), goldenrods (yellow) and sunflowers (yellow). Many other plants, including several non-native ones, add to the bouquet along the roadsides. Also in the same sites we can find the products of the bushes, shrubs and small trees. Several kinds of berries and fruits are ripe now. During a recent day's walk, I found the kinds we often eat: blueberry, raspberry, thimbleberry, blackberry, juneberry and chokecherry. Also there were ones we are not likely to consume: bunchberry, baneberry, honeysuckle and blue-bead lily.

Hazelnuts, both the American and beaked, are trying to reach maturity but often get taken by bears and squirrels before they get there. And the forest floor reveals new mushroom species almost every day. With rain and warmth of this summer, fungal walks are always interesting.

Bird song is nearly absent now. About the only avian singing I hear in the silent woods are the persistent red-eyed vireos and wood peewees. But this doesn't mean that there are not songs or calls to be heard at this time. In the grassland, often fields and roadsides, the now-mature dark crickets and green katydids will be scratching out tunes. Their creaks and chirps proclaim territory ownership or courtship, much like birds. Unrelated cicadas buzz from the tree branches, often in the heat of the day. Our late-summer cicadas are sometimes called the dog-day cicadas and for many of us, their call is associated with these August days. Also in the grasses, grasshoppers and locusts abound. While grasshoppers are likely to hop, their locust cousins will fly about. Goldenrods, attracting a plethora of bumble bees, honey bees, wasps, hornets and flies, resonate with humming and buzzing noises. The opportunistic, predatory dragonflies and spiders with ever-increasing webs, both in size and numbers, are common here, too.

Frogs, like the birds, are mostly silent now, but we see the product of the season. Myriads of tiny frogs and toads, recently emerged from the water, hop in the woods, lawns and gardens.

Birds may be silent, but they can still get our attention. Each day now I see groups of warblers flitting by. Made up of family units that consist of a few different species, these groups are frequently called waves. With chipping sounds and a few sporadic songs, they move through the trees. They are in no particular hurry and we'll continue to see them for another month or so, but as we watch them, we are seeing fall migration.

This time of August is not too early for southbound movement and these traveling birds are responding to the impact of the shortening days. For many of these early migrants, the trip is a long way to Central America or beyond. Each July, I notice the first of the swallows line up in restless groups, often on roadside utility wires. A few one day become dozens, then hundreds, and the active birds are gone the next day. Other migrants moving now are shorebirds.

"Shorebirds" is a term used collectively to name the birds, often small, that walk and feed on the shores of lakes, ponds or other wetlands. Shorebirds are a large and diverse group, but most are sandpipers and plovers. Others include snipe, sanderlings, turnstones, yellowlegs, killdeer and more. Many nest in the far north, but winter in the far south. With such a long distance to travel, they need to depart their home sites early to reach their wintering grounds. Some have been known to leave for their migration while the young are still growing. These immatures quickly grow up and take the route to the south, too.

While many birds are loud songsters with bright plumage, the shorebirds usually are neither. Most of the common ones that we are likely to see wading along the wetland edges are brown or gray, usually with some white and black as well. In flocks, often of more than one species, shorebirds will move along the shallows feeding on insects and other small invertebrates. With a long journey in progress, they need to stop and feed often while traveling. A flock, or sometimes an individual, may be seen wandering the shores or mudflats gathering ample food for a few days, but then get restless. On the next day, they are gone.

Their flight began in July and some kinds may still be seen in October, but any time during these months, including mid-August, we may be able to see their migration at the edges of lakes, ponds and other wetlands.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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