Top 10 Things to Watch For in the Backyard in Autumn

There are many things I look forward to in autumn—the leaves changing, the passing through of fall migrants, and the cool nights. Here are a few of my most favorite things to watch for in this season between summer and winter.

10. Insect Sounds. Only a fraction of our insects make noise—most are completely silent. But those that do make sounds are often at their performing peak in early autumn. There are two fabulous books that shine a light on the relatively unknown (for us bird watchers) world of insects: The Kaufman Field Guide to the Insects of North America covers the most commonly encountered representatives from each insect family. It’s a great introduction for birders to identifying insects. The other books is The Songs of Insects by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger and combines stunning insect photographs with descriptive text and a CD featuring the insects’ sounds.

9. Migration. Fall migration is often quite different than spring migration. Take our yard, for example. We get loads of Cape May warblers in fall but only a few in spring. The same is true for Philadelphia vireo; it’s most common in fall, with only a few spring records in our yard. Other birds like siskins and purple finches seem to be more present in fall, perhaps due to the increased numbers from the breeding season. Check out fall migration in your yard, compare it to spring migration and see if you experience the same thing.

8. Squadrons of Nighthawks. Late August and early September evenings we watch the skies over our farm for common nighthawks migrating in their loose flocks. I first saw this phenomenon as a high school sophomore while at marching band camp. It was dusk and we were still on the field doing maneuvers when suddenly there were large gray, black, and white birds swooping all around us. It was a flock of about 500 common nighthawks, and I’ve watched for them each autumn since.

7. Hummers Galore. The number of hummingbirds in our yards and gardens reaches its peak in early autumn, augmented by the newly minted fledglings from the breeding season. If the weather is dry and natural sources of nectar are not abundant, your hummingbird feeders may host dozens of whirling buzz birds. Soon the adult males split, headed south, and the females follow about two weeks later. Last to leave are the first-year birds. Our last hummingbird departs about the time of The Big Sit in early October. We miss them!

6. American Goldfinches. Here in the East we have an abundance of American goldfinches. This species is unusual in that it waits to nest until late summer. Why? Because goldfinches like to eat the seeds from the members of the thistle family, and use the soft, white, thistle down to line their nests. Autumn is a busy time for goldfinches. They are nesting, foraging, and feeding their noisy youngsters, and they are beginning their molt into their much duller winter plumage. When I see the first adult male with dark-olive patches appearing on his canary-yellow body, I know summer’s end is near.

5. Leaves Turning. As the summer winds down, we begin to see the first autumn colors appearing. The locust trees go straight to brown, but the sumacs and dogwoods will start “redding” up at this time of year. We’re squeezing the final beans and tomatoes out of the garden, and the backyard birds seem to know this. They spend a lot of time inside our garden fence catching insects and sampling our garden’s vegetables. The sweet gum trees turn to red very fast, then fade to deep purple before shrugging off all their leaves with the first real cold snap.

4. The Perseids. Autumn is prime meteor-watching time in our part of the world. The Perseid meteor showers run from mid-July through mid-August, with the peak action happening from August 8 to 14. The showers are caused by the Earth’s atmosphere encountering dust particles floating along the orbital path of the comet Swift-Tuttle. Humans have observed this meteor shower for more than 2,000 years! Take some time on a clear autumn night to watch the skies for streaks of light we sometimes call “shooting stars” during the Perseid meteor shower.

3. Butterfly Watching. Long, hot autumn afternoons are perfect for watching butterflies because this is when many species are most abundant and active. Monarch migration begins for us in autumn, and there are days when we see many dozens of these orange, black and white beauties. Check you compost pile for nectaring butterflies. And don’t be surprised if you see several butterflies gathering on wet or muddy spots on the ground, or on piles of animal droppings. Another way to see the abundance of insect life is to leave an outside light on after dark. The variety of moths and nocturnal insects attracted to the light can be downright stunning.

2. First Winter Arrivals. By the time September arrives with October on its coattails, we’re already anticipating our first winter arrivals. These include several sparrow species (white-throated, white-crowned) as well as some finches and perhaps a roving band of cedar waxwings. By early October it’s dark-eyed junco time, followed by fox sparrows and tree sparrows. This results in a big upswing in activity at our bird feeders, so we know it’s….

1. Feeding Time! Every autumn we check out the status of our bird feeders. Some of them we use all summer long (peanut feeders, hopper feeder) while others come back into action only when the weather turns cold and the feeding station gets busier. These fall-addition feeders include a couple of suet feeders, a second dish for suet dough, a tube feeder and a platform feeder. I already know we’ll need a new platform and tube feeder this fall. The raccoons were hard on them in the spring and the poor feeders can’t handle another heavy feeding season. Guess it’s time to head down to the bird store. They LOVE to see me coming because they know I’m going to spend some serious dough on my backyard birds.

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