Early arrivals are part of the mystery of migration

Golden-crown sparrows are among some recent early birds.
Golden-crown sparrows are among some recent early birds. The Olympian

When a good friend arrives and it has been several months since you last saw them, it’s a happy day. Two such “friends” recently arrived and made me smile.

They were flitting through the yard, landing in the bushes and perching in the trees. Two golden-crowned sparrows arrived earlier than they were expected. They probably won’t stay but will continue heading south for the winter. Golden-crowned sparrows will spend the winter in our yards, but that group have yet to arrive.

There is a noticeable movement of migrating birds in Western Washington right now. Western scrub-jays began showing up in recent weeks and fox sparrows were seen on the same day as the golden-crowns. That’s a surprise in my yard. I associate this sparrow with late fall and winter.

Why some birds are weeks ahead of when they are normally expected is one of those mysteries of migration.

Changing daylight triggers when birds begin to leave nesting areas and move to their winter homes. Once their long journey begins, other factors influence their travel.

If the food supply is good and the weather favorable, they might tarry along the way. Sometimes favorable weather can have a different meaning – when it involves the winds the birds encounter.

In the spring, strong southern winds push the birds north. Those are the days when we can expect some surprises in the yard. That same effect is produced by northern winds and I suspect the golden-crowned and fox sparrows literally “blew in.”

If a wind shift means southern winds in the fall, southward-bound birds might stay a while. This isn’t always the case, but it’s interesting to consider which way the wind is blowing when you begin seeing birds you haven’t seen for months.

There are other signs that fall and winter residents are headed our way.

Throughout the summer, Western Washington waters are almost empty of waterbirds. One of those, the double-crested cormorant, moves closer to the coast and the San Juan Islands to nest. They are beginning to return to the inland waters and many are this year’s youngsters.

They return to established fishing grounds and nearby roosting areas. During fall and winter, cormorants congregate in nightly roosts and spend their days fishing – or drying their wings on convenient perches such as the pilings found in local marinas.

Swallows at this time of the year can be a surprise but they too are moving through. These are birds that nested farther north. Local swallow families left a few weeks before these migrants arrived.

A warm Indian summer, where the bug life is abundant, is good news for migrating swallows, especially the young ones. They are making their first migration journey. Adequate food is important. Good weather, plenty of food and we can be hopeful that good numbers of swallows return next spring.

Some migrants putting in an appearance this month aren’t headed south for the winter. We are their “south.” Right now, they’re wandering this region and sampling various food sources.

For the juveniles, it is a look at the bigger world. A downy woodpecker and a Northern flicker couldn’t sample what the yard offered fast enough. From bush to feeder to bird bath, they seemed delighted at what they had stumbled upon. I’m just glad I’d filled the feeders before they arrived.

This is a great time to advertise to these wandering visitors that your yard is a good place to spend the winter. Birds have long memories when it comes to an easy and dependable food supply. Go ahead. Tempt them.

Write to Joan Carson at P.O. Box 217, Poulsbo, WA 98370. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Or send an email to