Conservation // 5 min Read

In the Field: August Eye to the Sky

Written by Aaron Palmieri, Conservancy Educator

Aug 5, 2021


July was the last full month of the breeding season for 2021, and by this point, most birds are done raising their young. Activity in the bluebird boxes declined to almost nothing, but after raising two to three clutches of young, I don't blame them. Nonetheless, the Conservancy will monitor the boxes until early August for any late nesting activity.

As we saw a decrease in nesting activity, we also saw more juvenile birds moving about as late-season young learned survival skills from their parents, and newly independent juveniles fell into the rhythms of adulthood. Some of the juvenile birds seen around Palmetto Bluff were red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers observed around Moreland Village. Fledgling red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers are identifiable by their gray heads compared to the dazzling colorations of their respective adults. You can still tell these young birds apart by the zebra stripes of red-bellied woodpeckers and the large white patches on the wings of the red-headed woodpeckers.

Adult red-headed woodpecker
Adult red-headed woodpecker (photo courtesy of David Miller)
Juvenile red-headed woodpecker (photo courtesy of David Miller)
Juvenile red-headed woodpecker (photo courtesy of David Miller)

Bluebird and woodpecker fledglings were not the only signs of the breeding season coming to an end. Juvenile raptors were on the move with swallow-tailed and Mississippi kites seen flying over Lake Bales in Moreland Village. The songbird chorus faded from a roar to a whisper, as attracting mates and defending nesting resources became unnecessary. The songbirds shifted their focus to rearing the last of their young and fattening up for the fall and winter.

Looking towards the fall, September through November is considered the typical time frame for the southward migration of birds in the United States. However, you are not going to see a bird out in the woods checking its calendar to see when it should head south. Day length is one of the major influencing factors that compels birds to migrate, and for some species, decreasing daylight means migrating in August.

Blue-winged teals are one of the earliest migratory waterfowl to arrive in South Carolina for the winter. First arriving in August, they trickle down to the Lowcountry throughout the fall. Ruby-throated hummingbirds that bred in the northern parts of the United States will begin heading south, providing an increased abundance of activity at our hummingbird feeders.

Blue-winged teal
Blue-winged teal
Blue-winged teals
Blue-winged teals

The swallow-tailed and Mississippi kites mentioned earlier will commence their journey down to Florida, over to Cuba, and touch down at the Yucatan Peninsula before heading to South America for the winter. Remember to report any swallow-tailed kite sightings to the Avian Research and Conservation Institute! Looking at flycatchers, eastern kingbirds and eastern wood-pewees will take a page out of the kites' book and journey to South America, while the great crested flycatchers will stop short and overwinter in Central America and southern Florida.

Eastern kingbird
Eastern kingbird

The changing of the guard for swallows also begins in August; the barn swallows breeding in North America will commence their flight to Central and South America while tree swallows nesting up north will migrate to the southern United States, Mexico, and Cuba. Tree swallows' wintering grounds are the northernmost winter range of any swallow in the Western Hemisphere.

Tree swallows
Tree swallows

Now, I would be a fool to talk about migration and not speak about the stars of the show: warblers. Their colorful plumage draws the eye of birders and wildlife photographers alike. Thirty-seven species of warbler can be found in South Carolina throughout the year, but we are focusing on eleven species that begin their migration in the dog days of August. The black-and-white warbler is the only one of these early migrants that overwinters in South Carolina; the other ten fly south to Florida, the Caribbean, Central America, or South America for the winter.

Five of the eleven warblers breed, or are supposed to breed, in our area. Northern parula and prairie warblers are known breeders at the Bluff and begin disappearing in August as the migration picks up. Ovenbirds have been documented breeding at Palmetto Bluff, but this is unusual as we are south of what is considered their breeding range according to range maps. Although, this may become the norm as ovenbirds have been reported more frequently during the summer over the past decade. Nonetheless, they will join the parula and prairie warblers in their early southward movement.

Ovenbird
Ovenbird

The two warblers that are supposed to be breeding here but have not been seen at the Bluff are the hooded warblers and prothonotary warblers. Technically, hooded warblers have been documented during the breeding season at Palmetto Bluff, but the last sighting was in 2011. In contrast, prothonotary warblers have gone undocumented at the Bluff, aside from one unconfirmed sighting earlier this year. The lack of documentation of the hooded and prothonotary warblers makes them species of interest to me.

The five remaining warblers that can be found migrating in August are fully migratory species, which neither breed nor overwinter at Palmetto Bluff. American redstarts and yellow warblers can be seen during the migration flitting about the woods in River Road Preserve or along the wetland's edge by the Conservancy classroom in Moreland. Surprisingly, the next three species have gone undocumented at Palmetto Bluff. Worm-eating warbler, Louisiana waterthrush, and northern waterthrush are all species that migrate through in August. I would love to document these birds at Palmetto Bluff, and photographs or sightings of any of the previously mentioned warblers at the Bluff would be greatly appreciated!

The last bird we will mention that migrates in August is the Chuck-will's-widow, which is trickier to track than the previously mentioned birds. Many of the observations for this species are based on their vocalizations, which dramatically decline after the breeding season and make their documentation challenging. We can still get an idea of their movements by looking at eBird's abundance animations, which shows the chuck-will's-widows beginning to disappear from South Carolina and reappear in their Central American wintering grounds around August.

Chuck-will's-widow (caught in 2019 during mist netting)
Chuck-will's-widow (caught in 2019 during mist netting)

EBird has an abundance of animations for multiple species throughout the world, and this is where I check to learn when different species will be arriving or departing from South Carolina. The animations and graphs are put together using data collected from user-submitted checklists, which is one reason why I am determined to always use eBird whenever I go bird watching. I encourage you to check out the Science tab on eBird and see how else your sightings can be used to help avian research and conservation planning.

The heralds of the fall migrations are quietly making their way through as we speak! If you see or photograph something you wish to share, you can submit your sightings to Aaron Palmieri at apalmieri@pbconservancy.org and they may appear in next month's update.

July's Unique Sightings:

  • Roseate spoonbill (Moreland Ponds)
  • Leucistic bluebird fledgling (Barge Landing)
  • Red-headed woodpecker juvenile (Moreland Village)
  • Eastern bluebird with a band
  • Swallow-tailed kites (1 Conservancy Shop and 3 Moreland Village)
  • Mississippi kite (Moreland Village)

July Contributors:

Terry Skiba, David Miller, Brian Byrne

Click to open a printable version.
Click to open a printable version.

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