Like wealthy European youths of Victorian times, a number of immature birds wander far from home. With their genetic instructions to move south to escape the oncoming cold not yet well in place, they head off in all directions in late summer and fall instead of flying toward warmer climes with their wiser parents. Such 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 moved south again during winters or were wiped out. Slowly, over many generations, this accommodation to the changing seasons became imprinted in their genetic memory, and migratory behavior was established.
Whether or not that possible course of events represents what happened, some birds, mostly those in their first year, continue to wander far from their normal range in fall, when alert bird-watchers often record unexpected visitors. 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 have appeared from many miles to the west and south.
Occasionally wanderers even have 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. The mockingbird, a still later arrival, 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. The Carolina wren, another recent immigrant, has been cyclically beaten back in this way.
All the species I have written about so far have been songbirds, but the ones I most often think of as fall wanderers are the herons. The little blue heron is a good example. Youngsters appear here occasionally in autumn in their all-white plumage, which only later will be replaced by the 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 spotted 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, 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 was carrying babies in diaper slings. That must be their parents' job.