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Migratory birds make a brief stop on islands for food, rest

October 7, 2009

You may have noticed an additional assortment of sweet sounds here on Sanibel in recent weeks. That's probably because the islands are experiencing a large "fall out" of migratory songbirds.

According to Brad Smith, Wildlife Habitat Management director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), these fall outs occur when large flocks of birds get caught by frontal systems and are forced to "fall out" on the nearest land. These events happen every spring and fall to a greater or lesser degree but they vary greatly in occurrence at any one location from year-to-year.

"This fall out is one of the biggest on Sanibel in the last 10 years, both in terms of number and diversity of birds," said Smith. "Generally, the birds will hang around for a day or two before continuing their migration into the Caribbean where they will spend the winter."

Article Photos

Brad Smith, right, points out a Palm Warbler to Amanda Bryant during a recent birding survey of Periwinkle Preserve.

On Friday, Smith and Amanda Bryant, SCCF's Biologist and Sea Turtle Coordinator, spent much of the morning visiting Periwinkle Preserve, a seven-acre parcel of conservation land which includes a half-mile nature trail, perfect for bird watching.

"After Hurricane Charley came through and took most of the Australian Pines out of here, we replanted the area to establish a hammock that would become a good bird habitat," said Smith, who patrols a number of SCCF properties on a regular basis. "You can see a lot of the songbirds here because they are attracted to strangler figs, gumbo limbo and sea grapes."

Smith reported seeing Black-and-White Warblers, Northern Waterthrushes, Palm Warblers, Blue-winged Warblers and Summer Tanagers the day before at the same location, but added that a large variety of birds might still be seen during this migration period.

Fact Box

Ten Tips for New Bird Watchers

Tip #1: Purchase a field guide for your area. A field guide is a book with pictures of the birds and tips for identifying them. The best book for new birders in the United States is the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds or the Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds.

Tip # 2: You need a binocular to see the birds. You will soon discover an ironic fact. The best birders have the best binoculars - even though they can identify a bird 100 yards away by its silhouette. Newcomers with a cheap binocular see a fuzzy ball of feathers and don't have a clue which bird it is. There is an unbelievable difference between a $59 binocular and a $900 binocular.

Tip #3: Know what to expect in your area. The giant woodpecker you saw in the woods was a Pileated Woodpecker, not an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Checklists of birds in your area will tell you this. has links to Checklists for every state and province in the United States and Canada as well as every country in the world.

Tip #4: You need to be able to find the birds. To do this, you should learn about the habitat each species of bird prefers. Do they like to spend their time at the top of a tree or on the ground or on a lake? You should learn the songs of the birds in your yard.

Tip #5: Join a group of other birders. Birders are very friendly and helpful. They are always willing to share their knowledge. We were all beginners once. Start by calling the local Audubon Society, the local Nature Center or Parks Commission, or the local Bird Club.

Tip #6: Try a birding trip or tour. Local bird trips are sometimes advertised in the newspapers. These are often led by park rangers or a local Audubon member. Birding tours can take you all over the world. When birding, wear neutral colored clothing, not white.

Tip #7: Read about birds. There are many good magazines about birds and birding. For North American birds Birder's World, Bird Watcher's Digest, Birding and WildBird are magazines you might like.

Tip #8: Bring the birds to you. You can attract birds to your yard with just a little work. Planting the right flowers will attract hummingbirds. Sunflower seeds will bring lots of new birds to your house. You might even want to build a bluebird house.

Tip #9: Record your bird sightings. You might want to keep a "diary" or list of the birds you see in your yard. You can also keep a list of birds you see in your town or on your vacation.

Tip #10: Have fun, ask lots of questions and be kind to birds!


Other birds which may be seen in this fall out include: Tennessee Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Redstart, Ovenbird, Hooded Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Yellow-throated Vireo, Blue-headed Vireo, Swainson's Thrush, Veery, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Scarlet Tanager and Eastern Wood Pewee.

For both amateur and experienced aviary enthusiasts, watch fig trees in particular to see some of these birds. The warblers and vireos are feeding on the bugs attracted to the fruits and the tanager, grosbeaks and thrushes are feeding on the fruits themselves.

"That fig tree was loaded with fruit yesterday," Smith pointed out to his fellow SCCF employee. "Today, there's not a lot of mature fruit left on it. They really did a job on it."

Bryant, who explained that she does know quite a bit about shorebirds, tagged along with Smith on this outing because she wants to gain additional knowledge about the myriad of bird species who pass through Southwest Florida each year.

"This is something that I need to know since I work on the island and am bound to get some questions about it," she said. "I needed to go with somebody who knows a lot about this... and he knows a lot!"

Interested in birding since his college years, Smith started watching birds with a hand-me-down pair of binoculars. He noted that the only tools needed to enjoy the hobby are a decent pair of binoculars and a copy of Peterson's field guide for birds.

"You can get as much out of birding as you put into it," he added. "You can be very passive and just enjoy being out in nature looking at them, or you can really get into it. Anybody can be a bird watcher."



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