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Birding Through the Seasons - October

With cold north winds and falling leaves, the Pennsylvania landscape is slipping fitfully toward winter. While many species, such as warblers, pass secretly through Pennsylvania's woodlands during September, sparrows and other seed-eating birds follow their southbound instincts and peak during October. A few warblers, such as the yellow-rumped and blackpoll, may linger around until early October, but falling leaves and freezing temperatures make Pennsylvania inhospitable for these fragile gems of our woodlands. Some of these songbirds will forage on wild fruits available in fall including dogwood and viburnum berries.

Waterfowl are approaching their peak migration by the month's end, occupying lakes and ponds across the state as they arrive from their northern breeding areas. Dabbling ducks (teal, gadwall, shovelers, black ducks, etc.) appear first, arriving in numbers with cold fronts this month. Diving ducks (mergansers, scaup, bufflehead, ring-necks, and others) come with colder weather in November. Look for dabbling ducks along the shoreline as they feed on vegetation.

Perhaps Pennsylvania's highlight this month is raptor migration. Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, Northern Harrier, and Cooper's, Sharp-shinned, Red-shouldered, and Red-tailed hawks are at peak numbers this month, as many of the raptors of northeastern North America move south through our state. Although most adult Bald Eagles migrate through in September, juveniles generally migrate later and peak during October. A diversity of species and good numbers are to be expected from the many vantage points along the state's southern ridge-tops, most notably Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, which is located near the Schuylkill-Berks County line.

Prominent during October and November are the large flocks of blackbirds forming around agricultural areas. These flocks may be composed of Common Grackles, star-lings, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Brown-headed Cowbirds, or a mixture of these species.

October is definitely time to set the table for your winter guests. Juncos and White-throated Sparrows – those ubiquitous winter residents – will be appearing around yards and at bird feeders with a blast of cold air. A variety of other little brown birds, distinguished only with careful attention, is moving through fields and brushy areas in large numbers, but is often overlooked. In fact, 35 species can potentially be seen at bird feeders in Pennsylvania. Offering a variety of foods attracts different species. Fox and Lincoln sparrows are some of the less common visitors. Those that visit bird feeders will not go unnoticed – the first American Tree Sparrows are usually seen in October as they take the place of their summer look-alikes, the Chipping Sparrows.

Dan Brauning
Pennsylvania Game Commission