Adam Mitchell, Ph.D. (in black shirt) helps birders in the Parade Grounds hone bird counting skills the evening before the Sept. 23, 2019 Fall Migratory Bird Count. Tom Sargent Photo
Dr. Mitchell, who led the bird count, submitted the following summary of the three-hour event:
Although this year’s count began under an overcast sky, thick with clouds and fog, we observed a total of 45 species for this year’s survey, which falls within the range of average for past counts in the fall.
We noticed, however, that the number of individuals we observed was far below average: Most species (39 of 45) encountered were represented by only one or two birds. This has been a difficult year for many birds—an incredibly wet and cold spring, followed by an extremely humid and hot summer.
The late start to the growing season may account for so few birds migrating through, as warmer parts north of us may still have plenty of insects to keep populations going. Alternatively, the many tropical storms brewing along the Atlantic could be pushing winds northward, making the southward migration more difficult for many of our distant flyers.
The good news is that Fishers Island has been invaded (in a good way!) with droves of monarch butterflies. Residents have remarked that the Island has not seen monarchs in these numbers for decades. In the first 15 minutes of our bird survey, we observed around 240 monarchs, which exceeds the dozens we have encountered in past years.
Nearly all of the monarchs we encountered were in the westernmost part of the Island: Race Point, Parade Grounds and the Demonstration Garden. This is due, in part, to the ample supply of native, fall-flowering plants found at these stops, which provide a nutritional source of nectar for the butterflies to refuel on their journey south.
Other species of note include a Nelson’s sharp-tail sparrow, a wetland specialist bird, found in the Parade Grounds, as well as Eastern bluebird near the driving range farther up-Island. A pair of merlins were observed near Chocomount, one of which was feeding on-the-go as it circled the group. Barred owls were heard calling outside Barley Cove, and a red-tailed hawk literally ate crow on the Hay Harbor green. The afternoon prior to the official count, we also observed our resident Northern Harrier hawk gliding over the Parade Grounds fields in search of prey, as well as a flock of at least two dozen common nighthawks flying overhead.
With recent news articles highlighting the drastic, long-term decline of birds in North America, it is critical that we continue to monitor our migrant and resident populations as they make landfall on Fishers Island. It is also important to acknowledge the strides that the Fishers Island Conservancy has made towards reducing that decline on the Island, with the grassland restoration project providing habitat to numerous species of wildlife, including those considered threatened or endangered.
When you have members of the community remarking on how they haven’t seen so many monarchs in years, or how beautiful the birds are in your grassland, you know you’re doing something right.
Greater black-backed gull
Nelson’s sharp-tailed sparrow
Adam B Mitchell, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Entomology
Department of Wildlife, Sustainability, and Ecosystem Sciences
Tarleton State University