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The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Is it the month of May, when spring migration is going at full tilt? How about Christmastime, with CBCs and starting up our year lists anew? If you’ve caught the Breeding Bird Atlas bug, it’s June. And I like an idea that I associate with Rick Wright and Paul Lehman: November, the grandest month for rarities.

Good stuff. Those are all fine seasons in the birding calendar. But my favorite time of year is July.

July? Come again?

That’s right, July. I’m so excited that I’m wide awake now, typing, at 2:34 in the morning, Mountain Daylight Time. I’m outside, of course, with my laptop. I don’t want to miss any of the action.

It’s been this way for more than a week now.

And it’s really picked up the past few days.

Again: July? What’s so special about July? I mean, it’s hot in July. Indeed, it’s been real hot this summer. Record hot. By the third week in July, the dawn chorus has practically shut down. Robins are feeding young, I guess, and there are some Canada Geese at the pond at the end of the street. What else?—well, I guess you can observe gular flutter (google it) on hot afternoons in July.

I confess: For years, that was my take on birding in July. For me, July used to be the dullest month of the year. There weren’t any migrants around, I assumed, and the resident birds were either feeding young or engaged in gular flutter.

I’ve revised that assessment. I’ve come to view July as just about the most dynamic month of the year, birdwise. Things change in July, day to day, even hour to hour. But there’s a marvelous subtlety about it all. The dynamism—even the majesty—of July birding isn’t in your face, like wood-warblers on migration in May or the dawn chorus in June. Don’t get me wrong: I’m as delighted as anybody to see a rarity on a Christmas Count, or a mega around Thanksgiving time. But there’s a special delight in appreciating the subtle dynamism of the July avifauna.

Enough preamble. Let’s talk about birds. Here are ten observations of mine from the past three days, Saturday–Monday, July 21–23. All are from around Boulder County, Colorado, where I live. Here goes:

Baird's Sandpiper10. Shorebirds. Okay, I’m starting out on a relatively unsubtle note. Even back in the benighted old days, I was aware that the “fall” shorebird migration is under way by Independence Day. Fair enough. But isn’t there still, after all these years, a bewitchingly, well, subtle aspect to the July shorebird passage? During a lunch-hour getaway on Monday, I saw a flock of Baird’s Sandpipers at a local lake. They were inconspicuous and drab, about the same color as the drying mud in the little cove where they sauntered about. But check this out: They’d just come down from the Arctic, en route to wintering grounds in South America. That’s the dynamism—even the majesty—of the phenomenon of shorebird migration. And that’s the wonderful paradox of July birding: a transcontinental drama so obscure that almost nobody notices it. Right: Baird’s Sandpiper by © Bill Schmoker.

9. Molt. Talk about subtle. But also dynamic. Molt is all about change. And many birds—most birds, in fact—are molting in July. Including the adult Northern Goshawk I saw on Saturday afternoon. It was soaring over the ponderosa pines and Douglas firs (sorry, but the hyphen is an affectation) that cover the steep foothills of the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains.

It’s 3:09 a.m. Venus has just risen. Skies are clear but hazy. There’s a bit of a breeze.

8. What in the name of—? On Sunday evening, my family and I were startled to see a gorgeous pink-and-green Lewis’s Woodpecker flying low over the treetops at the postage stamp wildlife preserve down the street from our house. It was a local first, and notable anywhere in the county. I have no idea where it came, and it just kept on going south. Weird. And wow! When I reflect on July birding, I can’t help but think of something that was said by Joaquin Andujar (google him): “There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is: ‘You never know.’”

7. An unresolved mystery. What’s the deal with Blue Grosbeaks in Boulder County? Go out at sunrise in the second half of July, or anytime in August, or even into early September, and you will hear Blue Grosbeaks singing their heads off. Quite often, they’re in places where they weren’t until mid-summer. So it was with a bright male on sunny Monday afternoon. Where’d he come from? And why was he singing with such gusto? One idea is that our birds come from elsewhere (but from where?) to start a second nesting in the middle of the summer. Who knows!

3:31 a.m. Cool! A Spotted Sandpiper is calling by the lakeshore.

Calliope Hummingbird6. Hummingbirds! I’m curious: How widely is it known that the “fall” hummingbird migration through western North America is going full-throttle in July? On Saturday afternoon, the feeders at a private residence in the mountains was thronged by hundreds of hummers. Many were presumed residents, but many others were unquestionably migrants—among them a handful of radiant male Calliope Hummingbirds. Left: Calliope Hummingbird by © Bill Schmoker.

5. And herons! Herons, too, show up in Boulder County in July. Most conspicuous are egrets, and most “definitive,” if you will, are the lovely Snowy Egrets. A few migrate through in spring, then they’re gone in June, and then they’re back. We birders refer to their midsummer movements not as “migration,” but rather as “post-breeding dispersal.” I don’t really favor the term; I mean, what’s the difference? Regardless, it’s always a delight to see the first Snowy Egret of the season—it was a juvenile standing by a lakeshore on Monday morning.

3:41 a.m. Ah. There goes a Canada Goose.

4. “Post-breeding dispersal,” cont.’d. Where does the Common Nighthawk fit into things? A few migrate through my neighborhood in late May and early June. Then they’re gone for about a month. And, then, they’re back. I saw one flying around the local park on Sunday evening. Was it engaged in post-breeding dispersal? After all, nighthawks breed just a few miles away, in the rocky grasslands of extreme southeastern Boulder County. My answer: Yes, post-breeding dispersal, of a particularly subtle, and therefore delectable, sort.

3. Baby birds. Sunday afternoon. Blazing hot. The heart of downtown Boulder: cars lined up at an intersection; air-conditioners blasting from every building; the artless banter of folks filing out of a department store. And this: eerie wailing from a tall shade tree, followed by an unmistakable c-r-r-roak. The Common Ravens have fledged. How cool is that! I grew up in a time and place when ravens were almost unimaginably rare, and, to this day, ravens still excite me. In my head, I “know” they’re common city birds in Boulder; in my heart, they are, and always will be, thrilling.

2. Nocturnal swallows. For several years now, I’ve been noticing that Barn Swallows are active by night during midsummer in my neighborhood. What’s up with that? On Sunday “morning,” well before sunrise—even before “astronomical dawn”—they were going at it. I could hear them from the exact same park bench I’m sitting in right now, this very instant. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear their familiar twittering in the dark sky above. Again: Why? What’s going on? Are these local birds just flying around? (But why?) Or is something bigger, some amount of “post-breeding dispersal” (see above). Or could it be something bigger yet? Could these be birds be full-on nocturnal migrants?

3:58 a.m. I couldn’t have scripted it better. An invisible but plainly audible Barn Swallow is flying over.

Chipping Sparrow Flight Call1. The Greatest Show on Earth, and the Best Day of the Year. For several nights, I’d been listening for them. Last year, they came a few days early, on July 18. The year before, not until July 24. This year, it happened on Sunday morning, July 22, at 4:13 in the morning. Fully 100 minutes before sunrise. I heard one of their tiny voices, and then another. High up in the sky, but unmistakable: the piercing flight calls of the season’s first Chipping Sparrows on nocturnal migration. Isn’t that crazy!—Chipping Sparrows migrating in July. They don’t breed in or especially close to my neighborhood. But they migrate, under cover of darkness, often in the middle of the night (if I’m up, I’ll hear them at one in the morning, two in the morning, whenever), from their breeding grounds in the Rocky Mountains to their recently discovered molting grounds on the High Plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas. Right: Chipping Sparrow by © Ted Floyd.
That high-pitched flight call—it’s over in less than a tenth of a second—is, for me, the essence of birding in July. It’s awesome, in the best sense of the word, to hear that sound, and to know that it signifies the little-appreciated mid-summer eastbound nocturnal migration of montane sparrows into the central and southern Great Plains. You have to know to listen for it, though. Now I hope the following doesn’t come across as elitist, but an appreciation for birding in July requires some combination of experience, perspective, and knowledge. But take heart! You don’t have to go on some tour to enjoy the Greatest Show on Earth; you don’t have to haul yourself out to some faraway wildlife refuge; why, you don’t even need binoculars. I’m sitting on a park bench—it’s 4:10 a.m. now, I’ll soon be able to make out out the faintest traces of dawn (oh, cool!—a meteor falling through the Summer Triangle), and I need to head inside and upload this post—and, if the guy delivering the papers can see me, well, let’s just say he probably wouldn’t describe me as an “elite” specimen of humanity. The Greatest Show on Earth is accessible and available to anybody, anywhere; its stars are Canada Geese, Chipping Sparrows, and Barn Swallows. Nothin’ elitist about that!
Let’s do just one more thing now before wrapping up and calling it a night. Let’s go birding for just a bit longer. Here goes:

4:13 a.m. A Canada Goose is going off.

4:14 a.m. There goes a Barn Swallow!

4:15 a.m. Two Canada Geese are going at it now.

4:17 a.m. Through the thin, high haze, I can just barely discern the Galaxy in Andromeda.

 4:20 a.m. Hmm… Things have quieted down a bit. But I’m hearing two species of orthopterans, I believe.

 4:29 a.m. It will soon be nautical dawn, and I can already see a faint glow in the eastern sky. I’m heading indoors now, for a long day of manuscript review—the day job, y’know. But it’s been wonderful out there, under the stars, the most wonderful time of the year.


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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

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  • Rachael Butek

    You do such a fantastic job putting excitement into the little things! Thanks for the boost in birding morale… I was needing it. 🙂

  • Barbara Volkle

    I never really appreciated the rhythm of the year until I started birding. Now every year brings more wonders. Thank you for this one!

  • Great post! Despite heat indices of 115 in the Chesapeake Bay, I decided to do a July Green Birding Challenge. And July is not disappointing me, for all the points you make: Pectoral Sandpipers arriving, Blue Grosbeaks singing, Eastern Kingbirds dispersing, young Ospreys hunting … EVERY month has something to offer to a birder!

  • Great way to look at July, Ted! I’ve had the most fun this month watching and learning to ID sparrows. And our yard here in southeastern Michigan is bursting with frolicking young birds, including a pair of juvenile delinquent Blue Jays who are very entertaining. And I thought July was just for butterflies and wildflowers…pfft!

  • Thanks, Ted. You really make me appreciate July! Just counting my blessings; Eastern Phoebes raising their chicks in a nest on our house, a Chipping Sparrow feeding a fledgling on our lawn, a Mockingbird dive-bombing my innocent dog to protect a well-hidden nest in the shrubs behind our grocery store, a solitary Mockingbird singing from the top of a tall pine by the shopping center, Common Yellowthroat fledglings pursuing their parents through the shrubs at the edge of our lot …

  • So nice to see a post that promotes birding in July. As you indicate, there are plenty of avian happenings that take place at the height of the northern summer. It was especially cool to hear about Chipping sparrows migrating to molting grounds! In Costa Rica, although July sees fewer birding tourists than other months, the post-breeding movements of uncommon frugivores and arrival of shorebirds likewise throws some excitement into the local birding mix.

  • Vjera Thompson

    Great post! Think Cooper’s Hawks are hard to find? Not in July! I recently discovered that a pair bred along my bicycle route to work. I’ve heard them several times and one day last week I saw FOUR youngsters hopping around on a snag.

  • “like”… 🙂

    I totally appreciate all the comments, but, other than Pat’s, and Diana’s about Pecs and kingbirds, I note that folks are focusing on breeding birds. Now don’t get me wrong: Breeding birds are awesome.

    But what strikes me so about July is all the other stuff that’s going on: molting goshawks, wandering egrets, migrating hummingbirds and sandpipers, mysterious Lewis’s Woodpeckers and Blue Grosbeaks, really mysterious Barn Swallows, and, of course, the nocturnal flight calls of Chipping Sparrows migrating to their midsummer molting grounds. Yes, I’m way into the raven families nesting along busy 28th and Folsom streets in downtown Boulder; but I also note that there’s a lot more to July birding than baby birds.

    So here’s a question for y’all: Other than Pat’s wandering frugivores (awesome!) and Diana’s dispersing kingbirds (we’re seeing that in Colorado w/Westerns now, by the way), what sorts of July movements are folks noticing?

    I’m not just trying to start a conversation. I’d really like to learn. The regional variation is fascinating, and, frankly, not well described in the literature. Let’s see what we can learn from one another!

  • It’s Thursday morning, July 26th, still well before sunrise, and I’m back now from a magical encounter with night birds and other cool stuff. Same venue as two mornings earlier: the park bench by the lake near my house. Without further ado:

    3:30 a.m. Awww! Nearby, a troupe of coyotes are warbling. (Yes, on the plural verb.)

    3:33 a.m. Cool! A Lark Sparrow flight call, loud and low. Lark Sparrows “aren’t supposed to” migrate at night, but they do.

    [Am reading Rick Wright’s fascinating “eThoughts on eGrosbeaks,” an online companion piece to Rick’s article in the July 2012 issue of Birding. More on that, very soon, in this very forum; stay tuned…]

    3:44 a.m. seen? That’s the flight call of a Chipping Sparrow.

    3:46 a.m. A Canada Goose, down by the lake, is going off.

    3:47 a.m. A skunk has just sprayed.

    3:48 a.m. The skunk’s spray is really strong now! I love that aroma, by the way. I’m totally serious.

    [Am done with Rick’s piece. Working up the Table of Contents now for the Sept. 2012 Birding.]

    3:52 a.m. Another Chipping Sparrow is going over.

    3:58 a.m. Now the whole gaggle of geese are going off. (Trust me on the plural verb.)

    [Am working now on “About the Authors” for the Sept. 2012 Birding. That Jerry Mahlberg is quite a character…]

    4:06 a.m. Another Chipping Sparrow.

    4:07 a.m. Canada Geese still going at it.

    4:08 a.m. The night sky is lighting up with flight calls: two Chipping Sparrows, two Lark Sparrows, and I’m probably missing stuff because, y’know, I am at work… 😉

    4:12 a.m. Another Chippy and another Lark.

    4:13 a.m. OUTSTANDING! A flock of Baird’s Sandpipers! Can’t tell how many, but those low, rolling, growling calls are unmistakable.

    [What do Ray Telfair, Morgan Churchill, Barry Cooper, Gail Mackiernan, and Steve Howell have in common? They all have letters to the editor in the Sept. 2012 Birding.]

    4:26 a.m. Three more Chipping Sparrows and another Lark Sparrow.

    4:29 a.m. Another Chippy… Another Lark…

    4:30 a.m. Betelgeuse is rising; time to power down and head back indoors.

    A final thought. Betelgeuse is, of course, one of the bright stars in Orion. And Orion is the iconic asterism of the night sky in winter. But it’s July. July! My experience this magical “morning” reaffirms my emerging view that, if you’re a birder, there’s just no such thing as the summer doldrums. You can go out in July and hear a nice flight of nocturnal-migrant Chipping and Lark sparrows, you might even hear Baird’s Sandpipers migrating over, and, if it’s not cloudy, you’re guaranteed to see Betelgeuse.

    Love it!

  • Hi Ted,

    Good observations all–let me add a few more. When I was at Powdermill, the last half of July often was surprisingly busy, and not just because of all the local birds coming off nests–there were always many migrants, too (i.e., birds of species we know do not nest anywhere near our banding site in the mountains of SW Pennsylvania). Among the best know of the early fall migrants are the Empidonax flycatchers, which have the habit of departing their breeding grounds prior to molting. We would catch loads of Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, many showing signs of their recent breeding condition (the females hadn’t even bothered to refeather their brood patches often times). Although a very small population of Yellow-bellied nests in the northern tier of PA, this small population cannot possibly be the source of all the Yellow-bellies we get in July. Next are the Swainson’s Thrushes–same thing as Yellow-bellies: no known nesting within a hundred miles of Powdermill, and yet we regularly catch them in July and always in a heavily molting condition. Their molt-migration has been described in the literature; presumably they undertake one or two nocturnal migratory hops away from their breeding grounds and then settle down somewhere to molt before moving on. Even more surprising (in terms of distance of known breeding grounds to Powdermill) is the Tennessee Warbler. As many as several dozen have been banded at Powdermill in some Julys, including adults in every stage of molt and occasionally young of the year. We probably caught the majority of our Yellow Warbler migrants in July every year, and these were clearly more than just local birds, because there never was much of a flight after that. Chris Rimmer studied the species extensively in James Bay and found that most birds in that population left the breeding grounds before or just after starting molt. Northern Waterthrushes migrate in July, too, and their congener, the Louisiana Waterthrush is a rare bird to catch in It was always migration at Powdermill after the middle of August (I am told they sometimes arrive on their Central American wintering grounds in late June!). On top of all this is the post-breeding reshuffling of birds among habitats and elevations that can bring loads and loads of Veeries, Red-eyed Vireos, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Canada and Hooded warblers, American Redstarts, Scarlet Tanagers,and more to the low-elevation, shrub-scrub-dominated Powdermill banding station in July. Truly, July can be wild with birds doing all kinds of known and mysterious things! It was always one of my favorite times of year to operate the banding station.

  • Marian Quinn

    Ted, thanks for pointing me to this post from the Top 10 Books post. This is a new all-time fave! My experience in July is this: having discovered a flock of bobolinks mid-June 2009 and fallen in love my heart broke when they all departed the field in early-mid July when breeding season ended. There I sat crying my eyes out when two horseback riders came upon me and asked if I was okay — well that question always makes a crier cry more, and how do you explain you’re crying because your funny little black&white&yellow friends are en route to a bazillion miles away, not to be seen again seemingly for a bazillion months to come. Enter “Living on the Wind” and the concept that there’s ALWAYS birds coming and going… well now I just better dry my tears and get cracking, no time to lose! My annual rhythms revolve around the comings and goings of the bobos from that field, but in between there’s something to be experienced totally unexpectedly just about ANY day of year, including ‘the dog days’. Remarkable right now in SE PA is the cicada chorus by day that gives way to crickets in the evening that are then joined soon as darkness falls by a deafening katydid chorus that continues into the wee hours. A July day a few years back I heard a cicada rattling from within the gripping beak of a young blue jay trying in a rather perplexed way to eat it. We’ve got a bald cardinal all of a sudden. And suddenly I’m hearing bluebirds in the neighborhood after not hearing them vocalizing since about May – why? And what the heck are the Carolina wrens talking about when communicating from opposite ends of the street in late July? Yesterday I heard chickadees doing similar long distance conversation – why? Fledgies are out and about and territorial declarations are winding down, right? Is the chatter toward flock formation? But isn’t it too early for that? Oh my. Not enough time in the day for figuring out what goes on in July-August!

  • Hi, Marian. In Colorado, where I live, the situation is subtle. (Of course it’s subtle. Why, because it’s July!) Yes, the Bobolinks depart relatively early from their breeding pastures. But they don’t go far–at least not initially. Instead, they assemble in the tallgrass in unmown meadows or around wetland edges; my assumption, anyhow, is that these are local birds, just a few miles from where they had bred. Anyhow, the birds literally hide in the tallgrass while molting; and THEN they begin their epic journey to South America.

  • And even though you may not see them, you sure can hear the Bobolinks as they migrate to South America. Listen for their flight call (pink!), day or night.

  • Marian Quinn

    Bobolinks are near and dear to my heart… they have lifted my spirits on countless occasions. Unfortunately in these parts tall grass fields get mown multiple times a season. I guess bobos in these areas have no choice but to move on. I have retrieved from a local field on separate occasions one of each bobolink and meadowlark youngsters after late June mowing decimated nest sites. The meadowlark’s 2 siblings were found scraped over and dead in the nest. Still can’t look at those photos without choking up. Both were raised in rehab and released. I keep an eye on that field now, and with others have tried various means to see if we can’t get mowing delayed (so far modestly successful only in 2011, mowing delayed into first week July). This past weekend *finally* got my first look at a male in almost completed molt (tail feathers still coming in) at Bombay Hook NWR. My next challenge is exactly what you describe, hear their flight calls as the migrate by night. Now THAT would be the thrill of a lifetime. “Bink!” “Bink!” 🙂

  • Ted Floyd

    My first Chipping Sparrows of the “fall” migrated over this morning in the early 4am hour, Friday, July 18, 2014 under calm, moonlit skies, Lafayette, eastern Boulder County, Colorado, USA.

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