By Cathie Sandell, USFWS Volunteer
Who birds the refuge in late summer? Even the White-faced Ibis are gone.
This timeframe is actually the beginning of the fall migration as the shorebirds return, first the adults and then the juveniles, who are born with the migration route etched into their bodies—unlike the cranes and snow geese who learn the route from their parents. A few shorebird species breed on the refuge, Killdeer and Spotted Sandpiper, but most travel to the far north where days are long and insects are abundant. Adults are heading south as soon as the young can feed on their own, six weeks after arriving. Look for Wilson’s Phalarope, a small shorebird that spins around in the water to stir up food. It will be followed by the small peeps—Western, Least, and Baird’s Sandpipers and the larger Long-billed Dowitcher and Greater Yellowlegs.
July is the time when the brightly colored neotropical songbirds are abundant—orioles, tanagers, warblers, and flycatchers—although not all are colorful this time of year. The young of the year look more like the drab females and few are singing. Even the ducks have molted into a drab brown plumage and are flightless while their new primary feathers grow. But lots of young birds are around; it just takes patience to identify them. And there are egrets—the long-legged, long-necked Great Egret, the smaller shaggy headed Snowy Egret with the “golden slippers,” and the smaller round-headed Cattle Egret with an orange crown.
Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, and Black-crowned Night Herons all roost on the refuge and some nest and raise young here. Dawn and dusk are great times to sit at the end of Bosque Road and watch the egrets and herons at their roost site.
August brings large numbers of hummingbirds as they leave their summer nesting grounds high in the Rockies on the way to winter in the tropics. Every feeder port will be full as the Rufous and Broad-tailed join the local nesting Black-chinned Hummingbird.
By September, ducks start returning to the refuge, although many will still be in their drab summer plumage with the males looking like the females. Some of the first to arrive are the male Northern Pintails, followed by Mallards and Northern Shovelers, the big three species of the winter season. This is a good time to learn the ducks by shape and call and sort out the females.
One of the biggest challenges is to separate Blue-winged Teal and Cinnamon Teal females, but it can be done—the Blue-winged female has a dark line through her eye, which the Cinnamon female lacks. The adult male Cinnamon always has a red eye, even when he looks like the female, which he does until December. The teals—Cinnamon, Blue-winged, and Green-winged—are easily told from the Pintails, Mallards, and Shovelers by their small size, the Green-winged Teal being the smallest.
September, the fall counterpart to May, also brings an influx of smaller migrants, such as warblers, sparrows, and the return of huge flocks of swallows. If there is a good crop of sunflowers on the refuge, they will be full of these small birds feasting on the seeds, along with goldfinches and Lazuli and Indigo Buntings. Local breeders, such as orioles, grosbeaks, tanagers, Vermilion Flycatcher and Yellow-breasted Chat, will be departing, taking their color and their constant singing with them. They will be replaced soon enough by the honking of geese, the quaking and whistling of ducks, and the trumpeting of the Sandhill Cranes.
Late summer/early fall is a time of transition from the abundance of breeding and young birds to the overwhelming numbers of fall migrants and wintering ducks, geese, and cranes. White-faced Ibis and American White Pelicans will pass through on their way south, along with Osprey and other raptors.
There is always something to see and marvel over at Bosque del Apache NWR, no matter the season. So, who birds the refuge in late summer? Maybe this year, you will! Come see what a different season looks like at your favorite national wildlife refuge!