Top 10 Reasons I Love Autumn in My Backyard

A red-eyed vireo zips around in the backyard of BWD editor Bill Thompson, III.
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Okay, I admit it. When the first signs of summer's end appear, I get that old "butterflies in the stomach" feeling associated with going back to school. This passes once I remember that school is something I no longer have to attend. Next comes a wave of sadness to see the lushness of summer and our farm's abundant birdlife begin to wane. Then I force my mind to focus on all the wonderful changes that autumn brings. "Live in the now, dude!" I counsel myself.

In the spirit of "living in the now," here are 10 things I love about autumn in my backyard.

10. Cool mornings and evenings. Although a summer morning can be suffocatingly hot and humid, autumn mornings can be delightful. A cup of coffee, my binocs, Julie, and a lawn chair with the sun at my back, plus an hour or so of quiet sitting and birding and I'm as happy as a pig in... well you get the idea. We try to repeat this in the evening as much as possible, but we replace the coffee and tea with a glass of wine or a frosty cold cerveza. Heaven.

9. Baby bird bonanza. Our yard in autumn is brimming with baby birds: chipping sparrows, song sparrows, field sparrows, cardinals, bluebirds, common yellowthroats, brown thrashers, and on and on. These naive creatures are easy to see and approach closely. They are often noisy and active, which contributes to making our yard birding more interesting. Further interest is added when a weird juvenile warbler shows up and we wrestle with its identity for a few moments.

8. Birdbath action. Autumn can be devilishly dry on our ridge, so our huge burbling birdbath sparks a lot of bird activity. It's quite common for us to look out of Julie's studio window and see four different bird species in or on the bath at one time. We have a list of all the species that have used, visited, or at least landed on our birdbath. It totals 70 species, including such surprises as mourning warbler and white-winged crossbill! If I could find the time, I'd love to sit and watch the bath for one full day—sort of a birdbath Big Sit!

7. Big Sit! planning. Speaking of the Big Sit!, autumn is when I begin my planning and prepping for this 24-hour birding event. This year's Sit will occur on the weekend of Saturday, October 12, 2013, but I am already thinking about where to start scattering the mixed seed so the sparrows and juncos are "tuned-in" to it early. I scan the yard to see where I need to mow and trim (or not mow and trim) for maximum visibility. I check to make sure that the hatch for our birding tower is working, and I start sneaking a few key things up to the tower's storage compartments (field guides, clipboards, lens cleaning kit, bionic ear, and the gloves and hats that seem like overkill in August's heat, but will be mighty handy in the chill of a dewy October morning). And I think about all the birding friends we'll be inviting, the junk food we'll eat, and the birds we'll celebrate together.

6. Hummer crowds. July and August are peak months for hummingbird numbers here in southeastern Ohio. We may see as many as 25 ruby-throated hummingbirds in one glance at our feeders—adult males and females and newly fledged young birds. Hummer researchers have come up with a formula for calculating the number of hummingbirds that are visiting your feeders. Take the number you can see at one time and multiply it by six! So that means our feeders are currently hosting 150 birds, more or less. No wonder Julie's stocking the feeders with three quarts of nectar per day! By September the males are gone and the females and youngsters are starting to head south, too. We're lucky if we still have a single hummingbird by October and The Big Sit.

5. Insect sights and sounds. Cicadas begin droning in late July and continue almost until the first frost. When she heard the first cicada of summer, my grandmother Thompson, a lifelong schoolteacher, used to say, "Only a few more weeks until school starts!" Oh, how that would make my heart sink. Now I love the sound. Then there are the percussive sounds of the katydids, which continue after we've had a frost, though at an ever-slower rate.

4. Migrants. Bet you thought I'd forgotten to mention the appearance of the first fall migrants. Our first indication of fall migration might be the appearance of migrant swallows—rough-winged and cliff swallows and purple martins, birds that do not nest on our farm, as they pass overhead headed generally southward. Then we see the influxes of scarlet tanagers, some green, some still scarlet. In late August the evening sky might be peppered with common nighthawks, sometimes hundreds of them, and their appearance always sends us scurrying up the tower to try to count them. Of course, we also see migrant warblers...

3. Red-eyed vireo chases. Red-eyed vireos must be among the most pugnacious of songbirds in fall. Is it the migratory restlessness, or zugunruhe, that makes them aggressively chase almost any other bird, no matter what size? Or is it the last burst of hormones from the breeding season? We appreciate their efforts, whatever the cause, because many of our fall sightings are of migrant birds that the vireos chase out into the open. We listen for the catbirdlike reeeear of the redeyes and watch for their super-fast pursuit flights, hoping that the pursued birds will land in the open. We know who's doing the pursuing.

2. Hilltopping. Aside from the thrill of seeing a migrant Blackburnian or black-throated blue warbler, autumn is also the time that our woodland nesting birds come to our ridgetop to make brief appearances. We get what may be our first and only good looks of the year at the hooded, Kentucky, worm-eating, and cerulean warblers that nest in our woods. Wood thrushes make an appearance, as do black-and-white warblers, ovenbirds, and Acadian flycatchers. Are they looking for food or water, or merely wanting to check out all the action in our yard? We may never know, but we greatly appreciate their visits.

1. Colors. Southeastern Ohio is on the edge of the Appalachians, one of the world's oldest mountain ranges. Our hills are covered with a wide mix of deciduous trees and just enough Virginia pines to keep a bit of green in the scene when all other trees are a raging palette of reds, oranges, yellow, maroons, and rusty-brown. When Julie and I were looking for an Ohio farm to settle on in the early 1990s, a real estate agent took us to a ridegetop property in the heart of Wayne National Forest. It was October and the hills were on fire with color. "Doesn't it look just like a big bowl of Trix cereal?" she asked us. Not the most poetic of metaphors, but we had to admit, she was right!

Enjoy your autumn, birds and all!

About Bill Thompson, III

Bill Thompson III is the editor of Bird Watcher's Digest by day. He's also a keen birder, the author of many books, a dad, a field trip leader, an ecotourism consultant, a guitar player, and blogger.

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  • I had a pair nesting for the first time this year at our farmstead in South Dakota. Boxes put out for Bluebirds which didn't come, but these were a very pleasant consolation.
    by fluffypeanutcat, Tue, 25 Sep 2018
  • This is a good point. While cleaning mine, I kinda got the impression the cheep cheeps were waiting on me since they started chirping as soon as I brought it outside again. I swear they are so smart. Within five minutes of filling the feeder up, they are there to feast.cheers Cheep cheeps!
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 20 Jul 2018
  • Hahaha, I love the ending remark "that area will have already been well -fertilized!"I've noticed that there are more cheep cheeps right after I clean the bird feeder compared to how many there are right before it was cleaned...so cheep cheeps do like and appreciate a well maintained feeder and they are worth the effort. : )
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 20 Jul 2018
  • The storm saying seems true so far. We had as party at our bird feeder right before our last storm... 6 at once but different cheeps cheeps would come and go so there were more than 6 for sure..and squirrels eating with the birds
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 13 Jul 2018
  • I know and do clean my feeders both for seed and for hummingbird liquid. I have a vase full of different size brushes that are only for this purpose. I have friends however who NEVER clean their feeders or bird baths, and it’s gross! I am ringing this article and will have to give out to the few offenders I know. I can’t imagine looking at such mess and not cleaning it, but not everyone thinks resale. Part of responsible bird watching/loving is to make the time and take the effort to do this.
    by Carol, Tue, 10 Jul 2018