Monday, September 24, 2018

Eyes on the skies

Eyes on the Skies
by Beth Sullivan
Certain times of year I find it hard to keep up with all that is going on. Eyes on the ground to look for mushrooms, is one of my enjoyments during this season. But eyes on the sky right now seems to be the most exciting
This is migration time. Many shorebirds have already passed through, but the young of the year are later travelers. They gather in flocks on sandy shores, Napatree and Sandy Point in particular, and when they move as a flock and take to the sky, they are usually mesmerizing to watch as they circle, rise, and fall again to walk the sand and waterline.
The hawks are migrating now too. On those clear, blue, crisp September days ( of which we have had very few so far), when the wind is out of the north, look up and then look higher. Sometimes it takes a while for our eyes to focus so very high, that birds are small dots. But the hawks circle up each morning on rising warming air currents, then drift south, being helped along in an energy saving glide. Locally I see them usually singly, but on a good day they will stream constantly if you are in a good coastal spot to watch. There are other areas where the winds are perfect, and hawks gather in masses, called kettles, and swirl in large numbers, ever upward and southward.
The young broadwinged hawk still screeches to be fed, but soon will join on of the large kettles of this species headed south.

Red shouldered hawks may catch the thermal winds but many will stay here through the winter. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Dragonfly migration

While you are looking up, you may notice dragonflies on the move. Our largest species, the Darners, both green and blue in color, are as big as some small birds. Only these biggest ones stage a true migration to beat the cold. They will also follow the coast. Here they fly westward rather than always heading south over the Sound. They also seem to fly at a variety of heights, some so low you can almost hear them, but look higher and you can see them so high they begin to disappear from sight. Anywhere along their route they are fair game for migrating birds to grab and eat. The purple martins have generally left their nesting areas, but high-flying dragonflies make up a big part of their autumn diet.
The martins, as well as the other swallow species, are some of the most spectacular migrants as they stage themselves in preparation for their long migration to South America. All along the coast, over salt marshes and dunes, hundreds and thousands of swallows seem to gravitate to certain spots where they converge and swirl in spectacular formations, sometimes for a long period of time, before they suddenly settle into the vegetation. The lower Connecticut River is one of the most famous staging areas. I have witnessed it several times, but more recently, at our own little Dodge Paddock, a group of us witnessed a small but no less inspiring demonstration by a flock of a few hundred birds, some of which flew so close we could feel their wings push the air by us. They converged and swirled and settled into the bayberry bushes that are one of their main food sources now.
Dragonflies are important food sources for the purple martins during nesting season and on migration.

Darner dragonflies may look imposing but are harmless and quite beautiful.
Clouds of swallows swirl and fill the sky as they stage on the Connecticut River before roosting for the night.

Swallow at Dodge Paddock.  A smaller flock but still impressive. Photograph by DEEP.

Monarch butterflies head south

One of the most famous and easily witnessed migration miracles is put on by the beloved Monarch butterflies. The species has been terribly threatened from so many fronts: habitat loss in Mexico, their wintering grounds, and loss of habitat and milkweed food source here in the north. Herbicides and pesticides and invasive plants all play a part in the demise of the species. This year seemed to be a better year for them locally. Citizen science observers noted more caterpillars and more adult monarchs. People have been purposefully planting and cultivating milkweed species for them too. At this time of year, the last generation will be hatching. They will be fueling up for their journey south, and then west across the US, and then further south into Mexico to their historic and ancient wintering grounds. As they seek nectar plants, they often find the best sources along the coast as the goldenrods are in bloom. Find a place along the shore (coastal dunes and saltmarshes have the best goldenrod), and on one of those blue September days, just sit and watch. They will feed a while, then lift off lazily, rising sometimes so high to as to be out of sight, and with all the other species, begin to make their way south on the winds from the north.
Keep your eyes on the sky to wish them all well, and then start looking for the northern migrants to begin arriving here for the next season of change.
This newly hatched monarch fuels up on the abundant seaside goldenrod.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

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