‘LBJs’ on the side of the road

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

White-throated Sparrow

Animal migration is a wonderful phenomenon to observe. Be it lobsters, monarchs, or in the case of this column—birds—watching the comings and goings of animals can bring a lifetime of lessons about the earth’s tilt, weather patterns and survival in general. Connections between water depths, different countries and even hemispheres can be made, and after a while the earth starts to feel a little smaller. Power of migration.

At times, bird migration can be subtle and tricky to see. The hundreds (or even thousands) of Saw-whet Owls that pass through mid-coast Maine each fall (passing through as I type) may go largely unnoticed by humans except for the random, stressed owl(s) that remains active during daylight hours. Observing fall songbird migration can be tricky as well, as male songbirds aren’t singing as they do in spring. Instead, some songbirds get shy and stick to the shrubs and thickets, or go high in trees during migration–meaning the average nature observer has to use patience and maybe even a little work to get a good view.

Dark-eyed Junco

For every tricky migration observation, however, there is an example of a more readily accessible migration observation. Such is the case with species each fall that use the not-so-subtle bird habitat and migration corridors that line the sides of our roads. These birds feast on seeds and insects while following safety-in-numbers survival strategies. Within a group word of incoming threats spread quickly in the form of “alarm calls” and groups will erupt in flashes of browns and whites at the drop of such a call. These groups of birds can be impressive in number and, depending on weather conditions, may show up where a single bird had not been seen the day before.

Some drivers of St. George’s roads have been referring to the roadside birds as “Kamikaze birds,” as they seem to play with death while darting in front of cars, buses, and bikes. Others describe such roadside birds as “Little Brown Jobs” or “LBJs.”

White-crowned Sparrow

The vast majority of LBJs along Watts Avenue I saw recently were Dark-eyed Juncos (easy to identify in flight as their outer tail feathers–both left and right sides–are white in contrast to the dark central tail feathers) and White-throated Sparrows. Both are members of the Emberizidae and both species breed in the midcoast. The large numbers of roadside individuals, however, tells a story of birds from further north stopping at our “roadside diners” before heading to their wintering grounds in the south.

White-crowned Sparrows also made up a healthy part of the LBJ groups I saw in St. George. This species breeds up north, Hudson Bay, Labrador and above. But, for a few weeks each fall we get to see this species as individuals pass through on their way to wintering grounds in the southern half of the U.S. Along the coast most White-crowneds seen in migration are first-year birds (hatched just a few months ago) and “white-crowned” can seem like a misnomer for them as their crowns are red-and-cream colored. Song, Chipping, Swamp, and Savannah sparrows rounded out the sparrows I crossed within the LBJ groups.

Hermit Thrush

Two larger bird species that I also saw in this year’s roadside groups were Northern Flicker and Hermit Thrushes. Flickers–state bird of Alabama!–are a woodpecker that spends a lot of time on the ground eating ants. When they take to flight, the white rump patch at the base of their tail (dorsal side) is easily seen and makes identification just as easy. Hermit thrushes–state bird of Vermont–have been extremely tame this fall, especially those with the roadside groups, and approaching close for great views has been the norm! That is never the norm at all!

All in all, I picked out nine species of birds in the St. George roadside LBJ groups and there were undoubtedly other species that passed through. It was hard not to note the sheer numbers of LBJs. They showed up almost magically overnight and seem to have disappeared as quickly as they appeared. The power of migration–a quick show along a roadside near you! See you out there!

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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2 thoughts on “‘LBJs’ on the side of the road

  1. Fiona Hooper

    Thank you, from us in Kent, UK for this delightful and informative piece on the migration of small birds. I am sending it on to family in Brooklyn whose back yard, somewhat overgrown with mature trees and densely green, is a haven for many small birds. It is also a regular stopover for neighborhood cats, who seem not to do business with the birds there, in an interesting adaptation around a precious resource.

  2. Carla Skinder

    Thanks Kirk,,,great article!
    I am still kayaking and we have had a loon return to Long Cove along with plenty of Buffleheads and hooded mergansers. The Great Blue Herons are still here and the yellow legs are still chatting as they scurry around. There is also a grebe in the area!
    Enjoying all the feathered and furry friends year round makes our area the best place to live.


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