Aug 11, 2021 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, August 2021

Top 10 Things to Watch For in Late Summer

As you take in the joys of late summer, pay attention to fall migration. You may find that the migrants of fall are different from the birds you saw in the spring.

There are many things I look forward to in late summer and early fall: the leaves changing, the passing through of fall migrants, and the cool nights. Here are a few of my favorite things to watch for as summer wanes and autumn waxes.

1. The Perseid meteor shower. Late summer is prime meteor-watching time in our part of the world. The Perseid meteor showers run from mid-July through mid-August, with the peak action happening in 2021 sometime around August 12. The showers are caused by Earth's atmosphere encountering dust particles floating along the orbital path of the comet Swift-Tuttle. Humans have observed this meteor shower for more than 2,000 years! Take some time on a clear autumn night to watch the skies for streaks of light we sometimes call “shooting stars” during the Perseid meteor shower.

2. Butterfly watching. Long, late-summer afternoons are perfect for watching butterflies because this is when many species are most abundant and active. Monarch migration begins for us in September, and there are days when we see many dozens of these orange, black, and white beauties. Don't be surprised if you see several butterflies gathering on wet or muddy spots “puddling” on the ground or on piles of animal droppings. They're attracted to the phosphates there. Check your compost pile too, as fermented fruit is a strong attractant. Another way to see the abundance of insect life is to leave an outside light on after dark. The variety of moths and nocturnal insects attracted to the light can be downright stunning.

3. Insect sounds. Only a fraction of our insects make noise; most are completely silent. But those that do make sounds are often at their performing peak in early autumn. Thanks to the emergence of Brood X cicadas, many parts of the mid-Atlantic region and Midwest were treated to a symphony of insect sounds during summer, a performance that won't occur again for another 17 years. But every August, listen for crickets, katydids, and annual cicadas—the species depend upon your region and habitat.

4. Hummingbirds galore. The number of hummingbirds in our yards and gardens, augmented by the newly minted fledglings from the breeding season, reaches its peak in early autumn. If the weather is dry and natural sources of nectar are not abundant, your hummingbird feeders may host dozens of whirling buzz birds. Soon the adult males will split, heading south, and the females will follow about two weeks later. Last to leave are the first-year birds. Our last hummingbird usually departs in early October. We miss them!

5. American goldfinches. Here in the East, we have an abundance of American goldfinches. This species is unusual in that it waits to nest until late summer. Why? Because goldfinches like to eat the seeds from the members of the thistle family and use the soft, white thistle “down” to line their nests. Fall is a busy time for goldfinches. They are nesting, foraging, feeding their noisy youngsters, and beginning to molt into their much duller winter plumage. When I see the first adult male with dark-olive patches appearing on his canary-yellow body, I know summer's end is near.

6. Squadrons of nighthawks. In late August and early September evenings we watch the skies over our farm for common nighthawks migrating in their loose flocks. I first saw this phenomenon as a high school sophomore while at marching band camp. It was dusk and we were still on the field doing maneuvers when suddenly there were large gray, black, and white birds swooping all around us. It was a flock of about 500 common nighthawks, and I've watched for them each autumn since.

7. Migration. Fall migration is often quite different from spring migration, and many birds take a different route south from their northbound route in the spring. Take our yard, for example. We get loads of Cape May warblers in fall but only a few in spring. The same is true for Philadelphia vireo; it's most common in fall, with only a few spring records in our yard. Other birds like siskins and purple finches seem to be more present in fall, perhaps due to the increased numbers from the breeding season. Check out fall migration in your yard, compare it with spring migration and see if you experience the same thing.

8. Leaves turning. As the summer winds down, we begin to see the first autumn colors appearing. The locust trees go straight to brown, but the sumacs and dogwoods will start “redding” up at this time of year. We'll soon be squeezing the final beans and tomatoes out of the garden, and the backyard birds seem to know this. They spend a lot of time inside our garden fence catching insects and sampling our garden's vegetables.

9. First winter arrivals. By the time September arrives, with October on its coattails, we're already anticipating our first winter arrivals. These include several sparrow species (white-throated, white-crowned) as well as some finches and perhaps a roving band of cedar waxwings. By early October, it's dark-eyed junco time, followed by fox sparrows and tree sparrows. This results in a big upswing in activity at our bird feeders, so we know it's...

10. Feeding time! Every September we assess the status of our bird feeders. Some of them we use all summer long (peanut feeders, hopper feeder), whereas others come back into action only when the weather turns cold and the feeding station gets busier. These fall-addition feeders include a couple of suet feeders, a second dish for suet dough, and two hanging platform feeders. We've phased out the tube feeders due to concerns about disease—the feeding ports can spread eye disease as birds come into contact with them. The raccoons were hard on them in the spring, and the poor feeders can't handle another heavy feeding season. I guess it's time to head down to the bird store. They love to see me coming because they know I'm going to spend some serious dough on my backyard birds.

About Bill Thompson, III

Bill Thompson, III, was the team captain for Watching Backyard Birds from its inception 23 years ago through his death on March 25, 2019. So much of what he wrote is timeless and remains informative, helpful, and inspiring.

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  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021
  • This breaks my heart. God strengthen your spirit and comfort your heart.I am fortunate to be taking a vacation next month, hopefully before sky high inflation hits and I can no longer afford it.
    by Ironweeds, Fri, 27 Aug 2021