Late July to early August is a slow birding time. These months are a molting time for many birds. Most adult birds molt their feathers once or twice a year. This process occurs when the old feathers become loose in their follicles, or sockets, because new feathers are pushing them out.
Birds that travel long distances or live in thick brush, where their feathers are torn, need to replace their feathers usually twice a year because of the wear and tear on them. On the other hand, birds that do not migrate or live in open habitats usually molt just once a year.
Length of daylight signals when birds molt. At this time of year, when the day length is getting shorter, birds are signaled to molt their old feathers. Those feathers that have become worn and dull during the past spring migration and breeding season will be replaced by new ones in better condition for the migration south. By mid- to late winter, the days again become longer and males develop a breeding plumage to attract females. Also, other males are warned that a territory is already occupied by a male of its species.
Above, from top: a juvenile and adult Indigo Bunting; an adult and juvenile Common Yellow Throat, both photographed by Jennifer Schlick.
Upper left: the Molting Downy Woodpecker, photographed by Tom LeBlanc.
After breeding, ducks, swans and geese, among others, molt all of their feathers within two to four weeks. Known as the eclipse plumage, they can't fly during this time. This plumage protects them from predators during their flightless period. The male waterfowl might even look very similar to the hen. For instance, a brightly colored drake mallard in its breeding plumage molts into its eclipse plumage, looking very similar to the hen.
I saw a pretty good-sized flock of geese in a cemetery recently. They were foraging near a pond. Their problem was the person mowing the grounds. Poor things. They couldn't fly away. They just kept trying to move away from him.
Because these birds feel so vulnerable to predators, some of them try to stay hidden. Some experts suggest the reason some birds evolved a pattern of changing their feathers all at once was because they are heavy. Even a few lost feathers would inhibit their flying. It is just better for them to stay grounded for a short time and then resume flying with all of their feathers.
Passerines (perching birds), on the other hand, take five to 12 weeks to completely molt because they only molt a small number of feathers at a time and are never flightless. Some raptors, like eagles, take up to two years to molt all their feathers.
Gulls can be very hard to identify because they change in the first summer, the first winter, and again in the following spring. Great Black-backed Gulls take four years to reach their adult plumage. That's challenging for birders!
Some birds look the same year 'round, such as crows, house wrens and sparrows. However, if you will look at such birds closely, after molting, their feathers will appear much fresher.
Each season in nature brings new joy. July and August become slow for birding, but they are great months for enjoying butterflies. Then, in September, the fall migration of birds flying south will start their cycle all over again.
Of course, hiking in nature spots around the county is a fun way to see all kinds of plants and animals in the summer. You are always welcome at the Jamestown Audubon Center and Sanctuary at 1600 Riverside Road. We are halfway between Warren and Jamestown off Route 62. The trails are open daily from dawn to dusk. The center's exhibits are open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. On Sundays, which are free, the hours are 1 to 4:30 p.m.
Ann Beebe is a volunteer at the Audubon. She is grateful to Ted Taft for his assistance in preparing this article.