August is a month when human River Rat activities are at a summer peak. As we go about enjoying what summer offers, our avian neighbors are already in autumn mode. As early as late June and the first week of July, Arctic breeding shorebirds are starting their journeys to Southern Hemisphere coasts. Generally little noticed by humans, some Neotropical songbirds, such as Least Flycatcher and Northern Waterthrush, are slipping south by mid July. As July merges into August, the trickle of early migration becomes a steady flow with some species mostly gone by months end.
As August dawns, the breeding season for most summer bird residents of the River is over. Only the normally late nesting American Goldfinch, and individuals of pairs whose breeding cycle has been badly disrupted, are still at it. This latter group may include Common Tern pairs still trying to bring off late broods. These attempts are largely unsuccessful, and by mid-August eggs are abandoned and “thus wait till next year” becomes the species mantra. Migratory birds of all types are molting and feeding voraciously to build fat reserves for travels to come as avian autumn advances.
Much of what is taking place in the bird world during August goes undetected by most humans. Many songbirds in particular are very inconspicuous as the adults undergo their annual feather molt. Most have separated from their young and are enduring this somewhat physiologically stressful annual event. Young birds are now on their own, with mission number one being survival. Even under natural conditions many species will lose 30-70 percent of a years production before the following spring. Given human created migration hazards, such as all types of tall structures and habitat destruction, many species suffer additional losses from anthropogenic factors.
While the activities of many songbirds go unseen by human River Rats, larger birds are more likely to be noticed. In particular waterfowl, waterbirds, shorebirds and raptors are visible to even the most casual observer. Resident Canada Goose family groups are widespread. Since these and other waterfowl are flightless during their annual molt, many seek remote or sheltered sites to complete the process. Groups of geese and several species of ducks, including Mallard and Gadwall, may be found loafing and feeding near small islets and shoals. These birds should not be disturbed by boaters as molting is a physically stressful process for any bird.
Many waterbirds are obvious along our shores during August and Early September. These include residents such as Great Blue Heron and wandering species such as Great Egret. The latter heron, standing tall in its striking pure white plumage and yellow beak, is hard to miss. Although Great Egret breeding colonies exist to our east, most individuals seen in the Thousand Islands are post breeding wanderers from farther south. From late July onward, both adults and young of the year wander to our area from the southeastern United States.
August is also a time when other waterbirds, including wandering visitors, may be found. Local breeders including Green Heron as well as Least and American Bittern, are stalking wetlands and shores. Although these species are usually secretive, quiet boaters and careful observers can often observe them as they fly from marsh to marsh or stalk carefully along wetland edges. The key to seeing these birds is carefully searching shoreline and wetlands edge for odd shaped “vegetation." Sometimes diligent searching is not required and wandering waterbirds are very obvious. Such was the case a few years ago when we were visited by a White Pelican looking like a 747 as it floated on Chippewa Bay.
August and early September are the peak of southbound migration for Arctic breeding shorebirds passing through the Thousand Islands. These birds use wetlands, shoreline and exposed shoals for feeding, resting and roosting. Some of the best places to find them are small islands where gulls and terns have nested. Migrants that occur regularly include both species of yellowlegs, Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plover. Less common migrants include White-rumped Sandpiper and Black-bellied Plover.
Raptors that use riparian habitat enliven the mid-summer scene including Osprey and Bald Eagle. Young of the former species from nests on the River are learning to fly. Even though fledged and flying strongly, these juveniles will return to their natal nests for several weeks before fully departing. Adults, while still providing food, are gradually weaning their full grown young to independence. Increasingly urgent food begging calls are ignored as the adults drift out of the nesting areas. The young, driven by hunger, are then seen to catch their own dinner using developing skills. One day soon those that are Succeeding in the game of life soar up on winds following an early autumn cold front. Then driven by an ancient urge, they will head south to the tropics, not returning until 2-3 years old.
As human River Rats are watching the Ospreys and other birds of this watery realm, we should be ever aware of Bald Eagles haunting the shoreline. A combination of our still too few locally nesting birds and summer visitors from Florida make any day, on or near the water, potentially exciting. When suddenly the newly flight enabled Canada Goose flock explodes into the air, after fertilizing your lawn, look around. You may see a large dark bird close or a speck in the sky that is the cause of the panic. Either way you confirm to yourself that August is a great time to be alive among our feathered denizens of this great River.
By Sherri Leigh Smith with photographs by Bill Munro
Sherri Leigh Smith is a senior Ornithologist, Avian Ecologist and Conservationist working to Preserve bird populations in Northern New York. She also published the popular guidebook, "Birding the Great Lakes Seaway Trail.
Bill Munro is a Murray Isle resident and one of our "go-to photographers" often helping TI Life. Check out Nature/Photography... may be just what you are looking for... February 2013 article.
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