One of the most challenging parts of moving to a new part of the country with a vastly different climate, habitats and seasonal changes is relearning what different seasons mean in terms of local avifauna, migration and breeding seasons. At this time of year out west, migrant birds would be long since gone and even year-round residents would be hunkering down as the temperatures dropped and snows began to fall. Here in Florida, however, the autumn avifauna is as diverse and active as ever, with new birds arriving from their northern breeding grounds to signal the change of seasons that here means more birds rather than less.
In my own backyard, I’m learning that one of my most reliable fall and winter birds will be the wiggle-butts, or more scientifically, the palm warblers. Though they spend their summers in northern swampy, boggy regions in the boreal forests, these birds spend winters in the southeastern United States and are widespread throughout Florida. I’m thrilled that they’re also widespread throughout my yard, hopping happily through the grass or flitting through the laurel oak trees for insects to munch. They chitter and peep as they exercise their airborne acrobatics, and even make dazzling dips and dives when chasing after a particularly juicy morsel. And with every perch and pause in their frenetic activity is the wiggling butt and pumping tail that makes them so distinct.
Because these birds hang out through the winter, I also get to see them in various stages of attire. At this time of year, when they’re first arriving, they’re bedecked in rather drab shades, but the yellow rump and undertail coverts still bring a bit of color to their wagging. As the months pass, they’ll gradually brighten up with more richness on their chestnut crowns and more yellow showing on their throats. Of course, some stay a bit more yellow year-round, and there is always significant variation when there are so many visiting – and I may have a dozen or more in my yard at once. Imagine all the wiggling! Their appearance makes me wiggle with joy as well, not just for them individually, but for all the amazing birding I’m privileged to have right at the tips of my binoculars.
For me, the palm warblers will now always mean fall is well and truly beginning, even when the temperatures, plant colors and weather patterns might signal otherwise. What birds mean “fall” to you? (Share your seasonal sightings in the comments!)