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BIRDWISE: Reflections on the avian summer past

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, cedar waxwings are often heard before they’re seen, so learn their high-pitched call notes. (Marshall Howe/For the Enterprise)

Cool breezes and colorful foliage of autumn are taking hold now as summer 2018 fades into the background.

In thinking back over the summer, there are several things that struck me about the seasons' birds that may also be of interest to you. For one thing, ruby-throated hummingbirds persisted for at least a week longer than I expected. I was still seeing several at our flowers and feeders on Sept. 15, though they became suddenly scarce after that, once the heat broke and colder days arrived.

As I've pointed out before, the timing of birds' migrations is regulated mainly by day length but can be modulated by local weather conditions. Weather more suitable for staying put than for migrating probably accounted for their late departure this year. You may still see one or two before the end of the month. If you see one later than that, take a close look to be sure that it's not a rufous hummingbird or another of the western species that have been known to stray into our area in the autumn.

In my earlier hummingbird article, I recommended use of feeders that have a moat that prevents ants from getting into the sugar water. This remains sound advice. But I found that one of my feeders, which did not have this feature and attracted boatloads of ants when hanging from a pine branch, no longer had an ant problem once I moved it to a nearby spruce. Do ants disdain spruces? I will be interested to know if my case was an aberration or if others of you have had the same experience. Give it a try, or better yet, just get feeders with moats!

My nighthawk experiences in August and September belied my recommendation on when best to watch them. I had said days with northwest winds between Aug. 20 and mid-September are best. Yes, they are probably best for migration, but not necessarily for watching them. They may be too high. My best observations this summer were on in-between days with overcast skies and little wind. On such days, nighthawks are probably not in serious migration mode and are taking advantage of a lull in good wind conditions to forage low where prey are more concentrated.

A final comment on this summer's birds: I was surprised to hear cedar waxwings throughout our area in August and September, recognizable by their high-pitched, wheezy calls. On Sept.15, it became apparent that they were simply breeding later than most of the other songbirds. That day we saw a new family whose young were being fed by the parents. Late nesting may be the reason I have often seen waxwings in past Septembers soaring out and catching flies like flycatchers. As with all songbirds, the nestlings need insect protein, not the high sugar content of the waxwings' favorite foods, berries. Heard more often than seen, waxwings are beautiful birds well worth tracking down.

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