This year’s fall migrant survey at Balsam Mountain Preserve kicked off on Sept. 4. It was a pretty slow day. We did find a couple of small mixed flocks of passerines foraging, but most species were birds that nest here in Western North Carolina. The exceptions were one bay-breasted warbler and a couple of Tennessee warblers.
What a difference a week makes. Last Sunday (Sept. 10) found the woods at Balsam Mountain full of migrants. The majority was still birds that can be found nesting on the Preserve, but there is no doubt that many of those were migrants. In addition there were more “true” migrants and many species were present in large numbers.
Scarlet tanagers were everywhere — we must have encountered 50 or more over the course of the morning. At one stop they were so plentiful they were even foraging on the ground.
Now, the one caveat about fall birding and one that might be viewed as a disappointment and/or a challenge is the fact that by now scarlet tanagers and many other species are no longer in their spring finery — they are in their more subdued fall and winter plumage.
Some birds, however, are still sporting a good deal of color. We saw many black-throated blues, black-throated greens, black-and-whites, American redstarts and northern parulas still in good color.
The only non-nesting warbler we added to this year’s list was magnolia. Other new migrants included Swainson’s and grey-cheeked thrushes and olive-sided flycatcher. We observed one new species for the Preserve — the Baltimore oriole. We saw at least four, perhaps more.
The olive-sided flycatcher provided a textbook study. When we first spotted the bird, it was backlit. But you could tell it was a stocky, big-headed, heavy-billed flycatcher. And, as is common practice for olive-sideds, it was perched on a bare limb at the very top of a tree. From here, it would launch insect-gathering sorties, returning each time to the same perch. We walked back up the road past the flycatcher’s perch so we could have the sun at our back. With the bird no longer backlit the large head, large dark bill and “vest” of the olive-sided became clearer. Then to make sure there were no questions regarding size and conformation, an eastern wood-pewee came and perched just below the olive-sided giving the kind of comparison you don’t often get in the field.
Fall birding can be fast and furious with mixed flocks of dozens of birds of different species intently foraging, but it is also a great time to study bird chip notes and/or call notes. Learning these notes can alert you to different species just like different songs do during breeding season.
It is also a good time to learn the tonal quality and voice of different birds. You occasionally hear subdued songs in the fall — very different from the robust songs of spring — but if you listen closely you can often discern a tonal and/or melodic quality that points to a particular species. Learning these tonal/melodic signatures will also help you in the spring because, as most birders know, many species like yellow warblers, hooded warblers, American redstarts and others have a large repertoire of songs.
Just about any pullover along the Blue Ridge Parkway has the potential for good birding during the fall. Just cruise the Parkway and keep an eye out for a frenzy of feathered activity.