Birding the Doldrums

I call it birding the “doldrums”. The time between seasons, when one period has drawn to a close and the next movement of birds has not begun. Early September in Texas can be a quiet time. The peak of shorebird migration has passed and, in the absence of a serious cold front, songbirds only trickle south. Birdwatchers eager with anticipation for the fall migration head out into the field full of hope, but often come up empty handed. I explored the local hotspots for nearly two and a half days solid and while I did see a nice variety of birds, I could not turn up a single bird of note. The upper Texas coast seems to linger in a vise-grip of deep summer with daily highs cracking the 100s. Resident birds are mainly silent, either tending fledges or avoiding the worst of the heat. Wintering birds remain well to the north of Texas and migration is only a trickle. Many birdwatchers keep a close eye on weather forecasts hoping that cooling temperature will bring a flood of birds moving south.

I cannot really complain. I did see a handful of excellent birds over the weekend. San Jacinto Monument held about thirty Wood Storks, plus a Chuck-will’s-widow. On the other side of the bay at Baytown Nature Center a single American Redstart and two Black-and White Warblers added a pinch of variety and I did find a stunning male Mourning Warbler in a Houston suburb. Along the shorelines there were just enough shorebirds to keep the scope busy for a while. Yet, there was nothing new and the weekend paled in comparison to the previous week, when a Brown Booby and Wilson’s Plover made first appearances in the county. The excitement of these two excellent birds faded and fall migration was stuck in first gear.

Several species made a strong showings. Yellow-breasted Chats and Yellow Warblers arrived by the dozens and Empindonax flycatchers were found in nearly every shrubby area, mainly Least Flycatchers. The calls of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were inescapable and Baltimore Orioles were common overhead, but the overall diversity of migrants was surprisingly poor. I checked spots on the Katy Prairie, tracked around Crystal, Scott, and Upper San Jacinto Bays, and double checked nooks and crannies in Baytown without much success.

For serious listers, be it backyard, county, North America or even the world, a new bird is what really counts. Without anything new, a long day in the field can be a bit disappointing. Without anything new on the horizon, motivation to track through humid and buggy woodlots and wetlands can flag. Here are a few words of advice and encouragement. First of all, fall is here and winter will soon follow, that is no secret and birds are in fact on the move. Maybe not in the numbers and variety as hoped for, but the oddballs are out there. By heading out into the field as much as possible simply increases the chances for that beautiful time and space continuum to meet, when binoculars or scope fall onto that unique out of place species or just a bird that had not been seen for some time. An outing does not always have to be an all day affair, starting at the crack of dawn. I have found some of my best birds at all hours of the day, actually many during the evening hours. What is more important is to look as often as possible.

If the favorite locales are quiet and birds scarce take the opportunity to explore other places. Maybe finally stop at the wetland everybody passes by or walk a trail at a new park. During these slow times it helps to keep exploring new places to keep things fresh. In addition, it is time well spend to evaluate habitats with a new location harboring a microhabitat that may be worth exploring again at a later date. When the sheer numbers of birds are lacking focus on the ones that are actually present. Instead of having to sort through a fast moving feeding flock in order not to miss anything, train the scope on a flycatcher and study in nuances. Sit down and enjoy the birds that are actually visible, study the overlooked field marks, and practice note taking. The slow and quiet times can be very productive and the key to future success is to continue looking.

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