The Working Waterfront

Island autumn and birds on the wing

Counting the migrators, savoring the season

By Barbara Fernald
Posted 2022-12-08
Last Modified 2022-12-08

Just when you think the islands would start to quiet down there is actually a fair amount of new movement all around us. It’s migration time. I recently read about how helpful it is to turn off outdoor lights during this season to assist the birds that migrate at night.

It never occurred to me that birds fly at night! In big groups, no less!

I looked it up on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website which led me to BirdCast, which has several migration tools for learning about who’s traveling overhead while we sleep. Nocturnal bird migrations are “detected by the U.S. weather surveillance network between local sunset to sunrise” and shown on live bird migration maps.

I counted no less than 16 evening grossbeaks around my feeder one fall afternoon.

If you want to know how many birds flew over your area last night, there is a spot on the dashboard to type in your county and state. I think it’s pretty cool to learn that over Hancock County last night, the peak migration traffic occurred at 2:30 a.m., with a speed of 9 mph and an altitude of 1,300 feet. Birds in flight numbered about 152,200.

The buoyancy of fall activity lifts my spirits. I’m fortunate that the energy of it keeps me from projecting dread on the shorter days ahead. But I know fall can be a hard time for others.

I love this time of year on the island with its dramatic changes. Getting to witness the migrations of birds and the colors changing on the trees across the water on Mount Desert Island is pretty special.

In early October, when I’m out for walks and see a great blue heron or an osprey fly overhead, I wonder if it will be the last one I see until next spring. (Now I’ll wonder if they fly at night, too.)

I love to see the migrators that stop by our yard and feeders. There is a red bellied woodpecker who only shows up for a week in the spring and fall, and flickers come through either alone or in small groups. One or two hermit thrushes come out of hiding to fill up for a few days before heading off.

A few years ago I counted no less than 16 evening grossbeaks around my feeder one fall afternoon. They stayed for an hour. There’s always a possibility I’ll see a group like that again.

My sister-in-law Karen and I saw our first yellow-bellied sap sucker while out apple picking. She recently spent some time on Matinicus Island where she reported seeing a black and white warbler and was able to identify a black throated green warbler from its call by using the Merlin app on her phone. She told me Matinicus was loaded with flickers on through September.

The birds aren’t the only thing migrating these days. From shallower water the lobster traps start to either come ashore or get moved out to deeper water as lobsters migrate and stormier weather starts to arrive.

After a storm, seaweed will travel inland from the beach as people gather crates of brown nutrition to put on their gardens for the winter. My lighter-weight clothing is relocated to another closet and warmer clothes and heavier bedding come out for a lengthy visit.

Leaves on the trees will drift to the ground and more of my favorite autumn light will move right into the house. It’s the time of year my friend Mary refers to as “the sweet decline to cozy time.” The migration from summer to winter on a Maine island can be very sweet indeed.

Barbara Fernald lives on Islesford (Little Cranberry Island). She may be reached