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Fall birds return to Delmarva

There are some new birds in town, and Dick Roberts knows them. Roberts has been banding birds for 34 years. He’s been banding on Delmarva for 16 years. For the last six, he’s been banding in the Nassawango Creek Nature Preserve which is, at over 10,000 acres, the largest holding in Maryland owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC).


Field work conducted by licensed banders helps researchers better understand birds, their habitat, food preferences, population distribution, range and migration patterns. Fall migration on Delmarva is spectacular. Neotropical migrants are heading back to the tropics after spending the summer here and raising their young, and are replaced by birds that summered in the tundra regions and overwinter on Delmarva.

What gets Dick excited? A four-acre field of what most would dismiss as weeds. But this field of weeds is chock-full of seed-producing plants which that fuel birds through the winter. The birds that eat here are what most would dismiss as “lbj’s,” little brown jobs. It’s easy to get juiced about jewel-toned migrants but it takes a special kind of person to get jazzed about tiny brown birds each of which takes a practiced eye to distinguish from the others. But for birders ready to take on a new challenge, tackling sparrows can be an exciting step. Taking note of the subtle differences between the species is a bit easier when several species are in close proximity. This tiny patch of weeds, notes Roberts, boasts nine sparrow species including savannah, song, swamp, fox, field, chipping, white-throated, white-crowned and Lincoln’s. It’s a tiny, concentrated field lab which offers tremendous opportunity for study, while the birds spend the entire winter here feasting on seeds-a-plenty. Now, The Nature Conservancy is allowing similar weedy fields to flourish, recognizing their tremendous value to wildlife.  

The majority of insect-eating birds have all passed through and are on their way farther south. But the yellow-rumped warbler is a late migrant. There are lots of other seed eaters of interest that will spend their winter on Delmarva. Yellow-rumped warblers, affectionately referred to as “butter-butts,” are plentiful. As their name suggests, these tiny birds have a distinctive yellow spot at the base of their tail feathers. They have an adaptive feeding strategy, first eating insects and then, as insects become less plentiful as temperatures drop, the tiny warblers switch to a diet of berries. Wax Myrtle berries are a favorite. During the middle of October, thousands of butter-butts migrate along the Delmarva Peninsula. During one busy morning at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Dick Roberts and Kim Check, Education Director at Salisbury University’s Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, banded more than 80 yellow-rumps. During that same day some of the first white-throated sparrows were arriving to spend their winter here.

If you’re interested in checking out fall migrants there are many opportunities on Delmarva. There are hawkwatch stations you can visit all along the peninsula, from Ashland Nature Center in Hockessin and Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware, to Kiptopeke State Park at the tip of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Group visits can also be scheduled at the banding station in Snow Hill by contacting the Ward Museum’s Education Department.

You can also check out birds right from your window, in your own backyard. This is the perfect time of year to stock your feeders full of black oil sunflower seeds and hang a suet feeder or two in your yard to welcome new winter residents.

If you’re interested in helping to protect bird habitat in the coastal bays watershed, please contact the Maryland Coastal Bays Program at mcbp@mdcoastalbays.org or visitwww.mdcoastalbays.org for more information.

Carrie Samis is the Education Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.


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