The Nth Annual Fall Festival

By The Old Farmer's Almanac
Sep 21, 2017
HGW binocs pack hawk
Cynthia Nichols


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Once a year, the little town in Michigan where I grew up became a happening place. The occasion was the annual Fall Festival, part craft fair, part car show, part caramel corn.

The whole thing was delightful. Streets were closed down hours before the big parade. Kids lined up on the curbs in hopes of catching candy thrown by the Homecoming Queen. I remember watching the town’s main stoplight going through its color-cycles, with no one paying it the least attention.

The parade made a strange concoction: there was the drum corps, followed by fire trucks, followed by a troupe of dancers in clogs, followed by the high school’s Homecoming floats, followed by Shriners from a half-dozen Masonic Temples, all buzzing around on miniature scooters, six inches off the ground. The tassels on their red fezzes whipped back and forth like blond bangs.

The whole thing was delightful because it made no sense: that was part of its charm. It was a menagerie, a free-for-all, a circus with a hundred rings.

The natural world is no circus, but each year it puts on a show equally lavish and equally strange: birds by the thousands migrate southward out of Canada, along both coasts, around the Great Lakes, over the Great Plains, down the Appalachians and the Rockies, pressed together into the funnel of Mexico and pouring through the bottleneck of Central America.

The birds don’t know each other: they just find themselves shoulder to shoulder, wing to wing, headed in the same direction. Most songbirds migrate at night, when a couple chirps above us or a shadow zipping in front of the moon are our only clues to the presence of thousands overhead. Some flocks of birds are so large, they appear as “blooms” on the radar maps of meteorologists.

Juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk
Photograph by Andre Moraes

More easily seen, and more breathtaking, are the migrations of birds of prey. From any hilltop in North America, on a clear day in October, you may see dozens, even hundreds of hawks, falcons, eagles, and their relatives, either singly or in small groups, all streaming by southward. One day the skies are empty and the next day they're full, as if someone had turned on a spigot.

Ospreys abandon their local ponds, harriers their marshes, falcons their cliff ledges. Merlins, little angular missiles with wings stuck out like an anchor’s flukes, go zipping by almost too fast to register. Sharp-shinned Hawks, long-tailed dashers of the forest, harass each other with the reckless abandon of fighter pilots. A Golden Eagle, ravens swooping at him from above like gnats, cruises past without twitching a muscle, its six-foot frame throwing an even larger shadow.

Sharp-shinned Hawk and Merlin
Photograph by Cynthia Nichols

This is delightful not because it doesn't make sense, but because the sheer scale of it is so hard to comprehend. My tastes have changed as I’ve gotten older: a Shriner on a tiny scooter seems tame compared to a kettling cloud of Broad-winged Hawks overhead, rising in a towering thermal, silent, on their long way down to the tropical forests of Brazil.

Broad-winged Hawks flocking in migration
Photograph by Andre Moraes

Dust off your old pair of opera glasses and spend an afternoon scanning the skies where you live. Let us know what you see. The parade is strung out over the whole continent, but it’s certain to pass your door. The Homecoming Queens don’t throw candy—no, it’s something far better. You may find yourself curbside, shoulder to shoulder with someone you’ve never met, both looking up. 

About This Blog

Field Notes From the Woods, written by Henry Walters, shares observations and ruminations on plants, wildlife, weather, and other facets of nature. Henry Walters is a naturalist, a teacher, and a falconer. He lives and writes in a cabin in southern New Hampshire on a 1,700-acre tract of conservation land, of which he acts as steward. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of print publications, including The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

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Migration if birds

I would like to read more about why birds fly in V shape while migrating and all about their fly trip. Thank you! Do you recommend a book about this subject?

I've seen lots of warblers

I've seen lots of warblers and other birds passing through Connecticut. Here's a question for the expert: Why don't they just stay in one warm place instead of traveling north every year.

A good question...the tropics

A good question...the tropics should be a land of plenty, right? It comes down to raising a family. Although food's available all year round down south, there are so many birds competing for it that the youngsters would never survive. Birds come northward to be able to spread out and find a territory big enough to support a nest of hungry chicks.

I love to watch the Buzzards

I love to watch the Buzzards gather for their flight south to Mexico. They circle up into the high atmosphere and become so small that they are barely visible, at other times I have seen more than 300 together circling then heading south. Amazing what they do. And to think, some hummingbirds are hitching a ride.

It's a compelling

It's a compelling image--hummingbirds riding along on a vulture's back--but alas, there's no evidence for it. As Annie B. notes below, those hummers have to do it all on their own power. (Which might be even more amazing.)

I love to watch the Buzzards

I love to watch the Buzzards gather for their flight south to Mexico. They circle up into the high atmosphere and become so small that they are barely visible, at other times I have seen more than 300 together circling then heading south. Amazing what they do. And to think, some hummingbirds are hitching a ride.

This year is the 1st time in

This year is the 1st time in MANY years I've seen geese flying south! So far, there have been at least 10 large flocks going over. I live in Central Indiana (Avon)near Indianapolis. The starlings are also gathering to fly south. I don't think this bodes well for a mild winter!

I have heard or read

I have heard or read somewhere that Hummers "hitch" a ride on other birds flying south. Is that true?

Nope. Old wives tale.

Nope. Old wives tale. Hummingbirds actually make the trip down to the Gulf of Mexico (and sometimes across!) all by themselves. Pretty impressive!

Nice pictures! I always

Nice pictures! I always wondered how songbirds know how to travel south in the dark. It can't be the sun or landmarks. I read that they can read the stars!

Henry is infinitely

Henry is infinitely knowledgeable about raptors. His article in the 2014 edition of The Old Farmer's Almanac includes details on how the birds are counted and how YOU can get involved! With this, you'll have the background and the nicknames that counters use, and so feel completely a part of the process. 

Haven't seen them yet, but we

Haven't seen them yet, but we get flocks of Boat-tailed Grackles coming through every year. We live in the woods, on a river, and the trees are filled with the wonderful, noisy birds! To us, this is when fall begins!

Enjoyed this. Like the

Enjoyed this. Like the caption with the photos. You mentioned Ospreys. I live in Calgary and went on a birding course a couple of weeks ago. We had an Osprey give us a great fly-by. Also came across Black-capped Chickadee and White-breasted Nuthatch. Then saw a Cooper's Hawk in the tree. Great day out.

I heard some birds are

I heard some birds are sticking around more because it's been warmer. But I've also ready that weather isn't really the cue and that birds migrate based on instinct and day length.

Birds of prey are largely

Birds of prey are largely taking their cue to migrate from the length of the day. Other species of birds have more variable migration "triggers"--many flycatchers, for example, will come north early if insects are to be had there. All birds, however, are coordinating their movements to the availability of food in the place where they're going. Sometimes this happens by instinct, sometimes by year-to-year weather patterns.

I didn't realize the that

I didn't realize the that small songbirds migrated at night. Very interesting. I was wondering when do the hummingbirds migrate? I love hummers.

Hummingbirds are mostly

Hummingbirds are mostly active by day, since they need to feed almost constantly to support their high metabolism. But they do occasionally fly at night: when crossing the Gulf of Mexico on their journey south, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will leave the Texas coast at dusk for a non-stop flight that takes around 20 hours--just amazing.


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