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Northland Nature: Swallows begin staging for autumn migration

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

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A group of tree swallows perch on the top of a dead tamarack on a July morning. This is their staging site, an early phase of the fall migration. (Photo by Larry Weber)
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The late July morning is fairly cool and calm with a forecast of a hot afternoon. It is a pleasant time to walk.

Along my usual road route, I pass plenty of wildflowers. Fireweed and milkweed still show blossoms as they did for much of this month; also with purple flowers are the Canada thistles. Their flowering is quicker and they will soon be forming fluffy seeds.

Tall sunflowers have joined black-eyed Susans to add yellow to the scene. More yellow is here each day as goldenrods are flowering. I see Canada goldenrods holding its yellow cluster above the leafy stem as it joins with a couple goldenrods earlier.

And a real sign of the season moving on, I find the first aster — a flat-topped aster — has opened its white flowers.

The advancing season means fewer bird songs, but as I walk by the woods, I hear some songsters. Song sparrows and yellowthroats continue singing from the brush while a couple persistent vireos give their short-repeated phrases from the trees. A few other birds are also active. I see goldfinches at the thistle seeds, while cedar waxwings visit small trees in search of berries.

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When I reach the pond, I see that wood ducks and hooded mergansers have joined the grebe family that resided here all summer. The resident red-winged blackbirds are active, and the young are so well-grown that it is hard to tell them from the adults.
I stop at the nearby swamp. Dead tamaracks and spruces out here provide great places for orb webs of spiders. Looking over the scene, facing the rising sun in the east, I see dozens of these webs. But there is more going on in the trees as well.

The same branches that hold aerial orb webs are the site of movement of birds. About a dozen small birds are circling and feeding on insects in mid air and then returning to their perches on the trees. I recognize this avian crowd as tree swallows. And I realize that what I am seeing is a staging site. These little birds are congregating in the very early phase of their autumn migration.

The second half of July seems like a long way from autumn and migration also seems far away, but with some birds, it begins early. Tree swallows were the first of the swallows to arrive in spring. Though they had to deal with some cool spring weather, they did find nesting locations early and successfully raised a family before most other birds.

By July, young are with plumages of white beneath and dark above, like the adults. And like the adults, they actively feed on the wing.

July days are often hot and summer continues; however, the daylight is getting shorter, sending a message to the birds that south-bound movement is beginning. Fall migration, with large flocks, is later, but it begins now with these family units. The ones that I see here this morning are too many for one family and probably represent members of a couple families that have joined.

Here at this staging site, they will gather to feed and rest. At this swamp, there are plenty of insects to provide food. They’ll meet with other groups and form migration flocks that will be heading south.

I’m glad to see the swallows here today, but I don’t expect this group to stay. Just as quickly as they arrived, they will be going into the next phase of their south migration. Starting now, they have plenty of time to move on in their flight.

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Larry Weber
Larry Weber

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Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books.
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