Autumn Wanderers

(This column was first published in the September 17, 2001 Buffalo News.)

    Like those wealthy European youths of Victorian times, a number of immature birds wander far from home. Their genetic instructions to move south to escape the oncoming cold not yet well in place, in late summer and fall they head off in all directions instead of flying toward warmer climes with their older and wiser parents. And their roaming across the countryside often takes them well outside, sometimes thousands of miles outside, their normal range.

    If we reconsider history, we can speculate that this was the way bird migration itself developed. The glaciers that brought mile-high ice sheets to this region and cold to most of North America periodically for a million or more years drove all life southward. Then when the ice sheets retreated -- the most recent episode about 10,000 years ago -- wandering birds like these slowly opened new territories to the north but either moved south again during winters or were wiped out. Slowly and over many generations this accommodation to the changing seasons became imprinted in their genetic memory and migratory behavior was established.

    Whether or not that probable scenario represents what happened, we continue to have mostly first year birds wandering far from their normal range in fall and alert bird watchers often record unexpected visitors at this time. From many miles to the west and south have appeared rufous and Anna's hummingbirds, western kingbird, fork-tailed and ash-throated flycatchers, cave swallow, rock wren, varied thrush, Bohemian waxwing, painted redstart and black-headed grosbeak.

    Occasionally wanderers have even established themselves in our region. When I was a youngster, the cardinal was a very rare bird in western New York. Now it is a common resident and a still later arrival, the mockingbird, already outnumbers our native brown thrasher. Birders call species like these half-hardies because severe winters often decimate their populations despite the helpful intervention of bird feeders. Another recent immigrant, the Carolina wren, is one of the birds that has been cyclically beaten back in this way.

    The species I have written about so far have all been songbirds but the ones I most often think of as fall wanderers are the herons. The little blue heron is a good example of this. They occur here occasionally in autumn as youngsters in their all white plumage that only later will be replaced by blue and purple of their elders.

    But this year's esteemed visitors are wood storks. The records of the Buffalo Ornithological Society go back for three-quarters of a century and only twice during those years have wood storks -- formerly called wood ibises -- been recorded. The first, in 1939, was a single bird seen in a large swamp near Fillmore by two Houghton College professors. Then in August 1978, Bob Andrle and others found three near Portville.

    Then a few days ago a remarkable 16 of these immature storks suddenly appeared in Wayne County, east of Rochester. It took me two trips but I finally followed directions -- a series of lefts and rights on ever-diminishing country lanes -- and came upon them in a small swamp. They paid little attention to the group of us and we were able to approach within 50 feet.

    Despite their featherless, vulture-like heads and their knobby legs, I found these young storks quite attractive. Several were busily seeking fish in the shallow water and they occasionally spread lovely black and white wings, apparently either to frighten their prey into flight or to provide better vision in their shade.

    But one thing I missed. None of these storks were carrying babies in diaper slings. That must be their parents' job.-- Gerry Rising