I had to let the birds come to me during this year’s spring bird migration. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, I only occasionally ventured out on short excursions that often included a grocery pick up after a brief search for migrating birds.
So, I decided to look back in my photo files for a bird that I had never shared before. This Prothonotary Warbler caught my attention and sent me back to when and where I had photographed it. It was a cool, damp day at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area along Lake Erie’s shore in northwest Ohio. The boardwalk was crowded with other birders of all ages from around the world. The cameras clicked away when this bright yellow fellow appeared. Unfortunately, Magee Marsh is closed this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Prothonotary Warblers are only one of two warbler species that nest in tree cavities. They prefer marshy thickets as their habitats. They are named for Roman Catholic papal clerks known as prothonotaries who wear bright yellow robes.
As the colorful leaves fade and twirl in the wind, another splash of luster arrives to dot the landscape. Migrating birds appear to see the winter through. I relish their return.
Many of the birds, of course, merely pass through on their way to much warmer southern climes. The ruby-throated hummingbirds, for example, have long been gone. A stray late one might yet be seen. Most are far south of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley by now.
I’ve had two tube feeders hanging from the red maple trees in the front and back yards for weeks now. Many of the year-round regulars have begun to partake in the free sunflower seed buffet.
The noisy red-bellied woodpeckers are hard to miss. Their iridescent red-striped head and contrasting black and white ladder back are as flashy as their aggressive behavior. They’re not bullies. They just know what they want and help themselves.
Our smallest woodpecker, the downy, is much more pensive and much less flashy. Only a blotch of red on the back of the head identifies the male from the similarly marked black and white feathered female.
Every now and then, a northern flicker or two will show up at the birdbaths or forage for ants in the mulch on warmer days. With their earth-tone coloration, they are handsome birds for sure.
An array of bedecked songbirds frequents the feeders, too. A cheery chip, chip, announces the presence of the bright red northern male cardinals and their khaki-colored mates. That color combination enhances any bird feeding station.
It’s the richly feathered Carolina wrens, however, that keep the cooler fall air filled with music. Their protein preference is to search for dead insects than to settle for seeds. Even the peanut butter suet isn’t their first choice.
The beautifully patterned song sparrows might belt out a chorus or two. However, it’s the plaintive call of the white-throated sparrows that thrills me. They have only now just begun to arrive. Their hop, kick, and scratch feeding tactic is a joy to watch as well.
The white-crowned sparrows are the showpieces of the sparrow species. Their distinctive black and white stripes can’t be missed. Their looks alone qualify them as the feeder referees.
A lone eastern towhee made a brief appearance in the back yard recently. It foraged beneath the pines that border the neighbor’s property. It was a first for my Virginia yard list.
Last year, I was pleasantly surprised by the appearances of a small flock of purple finches. Though less colorful than their male counterparts, the females stood out with their creamy patches and brown streaks. Neatly attired red-breasted nuthatches also appeared intermittingly. I’m hoping all of them return.
Given the recent report on the loss of nearly 30 percent of North America’s bird population in the last 50 years, I’ll be happy with whatever birds do arrive. Several species have even been declared extinct. Europe is experiencing similar losses of bird species.
The extensive study covered nearly the exact timeframe that I have been watching and feeding birds. All the while, bird populations have slowly been declining. Losses of habitats in nesting, migrating, and wintering locales have hurt the bird numbers. Climate change and herbicide usage are other suspected causes of the birds’ demise.
Despite the bad news, I’ll continue to feed the birds in the fall and winter. The birds provide welcome entertainment during the dormant months. The way it’s going, the birds will need all the help they can get.
May is for the birds. Thousands of bird lovers young and old clearly would understand what I mean.
Birders live for spring migration. Birds large and small that headed south for warmer winter climes return north to their annual breeding grounds. May is the peak month for such movement.
Birders clamor for any and every chance to find rare birds or to compile as many species as they can see or hear in a day or week or month. There is no better place in North America to do that than a small state-managed wildlife area in northwest Ohio called Magee Marsh. Birds and birders both flock to the estuaries, marshlands, and small woodlots that abut Lake Erie’s southwestern shore.
Even if you don’t count yourself among the aviary flock, it’s worth a trip just for the experience. Cruise through the expansive parking lot, and you’ll find vehicles of all shapes and sizes with license plates from across the country and Canada. Human participants even fly in from foreign countries for the spectacular migratory happening.
The “week” is actually multiple days in early May. This year it’s May 3-12. Many species of birds, especially warblers, use Magee Marsh and surrounding protected wetlands as rest stops before winging it over Lake Erie into Canada. The first landing spot for many is Point Pele near Leamington, Ontario, just across the lake.
The colorful songbirds sometimes hang like Christmas tree ornaments from tree branches. Birders ogle from boardwalks that wind their way through the trees and along ponds and wetland habitats.
Workshops and lectures are also held to inform interested parties about the latest findings on bird populations, behaviors, and dwindling habitats. Guided field trips are also available. Of course, you can also buy birding supplies, books, and equipment.
But it’s the birds that matter. Youngsters and oldsters, groups and individuals ply their skills at searching for the latest arrived species. Word of a Canadian warbler, a secretive bird with a quiet call, spreads quickly among the birders. Just locate the crowd with spotting scopes and binoculars aimed in search of the prize.
If by chance a real rarity shows, like the endangered Kirtland’s warbler, the crowd suddenly shifts to add to their life list of seeing this worshiped species. Only a small number still summer in the jack pines of the Lower Michigan peninsula.
Cameras and bins.
Searching for a Kirtland’s Warbler.
Yes, that is a Kirtland’s Warbler, and another one was spotted there yesterday, May 3, 2019.
Of course, northwest Ohio is not the only migration hotspot on the continent. Cape May, New Jersey, southern Arizona, the coastlines of Florida and California to name a few also host migrating birds and curious birders. Coastal regions and contiguous topography with natural waterways, ponds, and habitat provide flyways for the returning birds.
Birds need cover, food, water, and safe spaces to rest and refuel to continue their journey and reach their destination. In the fall, they’ll repeat the process in reverse, only dressed in more camouflaged colors.
In many species, it’s the flashy colors that birders love to view, if only for a few precious seconds. Some of the species call northern Ohio home for the summer.
School groups, church groups, family groups, young birder groups, birding clubs, and just curious individuals celebrate these early spring days searching for any shorebirds, songbirds, waterfowl, and birds of prey that happen to be passing through.
It’s spring migration after all when May really is for the birds.
The annual migration of birds has been going on for some time now. Fall in the birding vernacular doesn’t equal calendar fall.
There is a logical reason for that. Different species of birds begin their migration at different times. Shorebirds and songbirds often lead the winged entourage to warmer climes. Others trail along alone or in giant flocks to the delight of avid birders. To account for these time travel variances in the birding world, fall is the most extended season, running from August through November.
The same concept is valid for trees and deciduous plants. Some species begin their winter hibernation sooner than others. Their various changing colors can foretell this annual transition. Poison ivy leaves often turn bright red before September arrives, while the glossy leaves of shingle oaks fade from emerald to russet and hang on until early spring.
For me, I welcome these transitions, especially the birding varieties. As the leaves of the red maples in our yard began to fall, birds I had not seen before began to arrive.
Storms brought down many of the remaining leaves. They also blew in flocks of birds, some temporarily. Others seem here to stay.
Last fall, our first in the Shenandoah Valley, birds were scarce at the feeders. The numbers and variety of birds were well below my expectations. I longed for the many beautiful birds we had had in Ohio.
Optimist that I am, I hung the feeders again right after Labor Day and attracted a few regulars. I can always count on chatty house finches and boisterous blue jays. Once the weather cooled, the suet feeder went up in the backyard.
I was contented with the usual suspects, happy that even the Carolina Wrens made regular appearances. But I could not have anticipated what happened next. About six weeks ago, I noticed some birds that resembled the numerous house finches that frequented our feeders. A closer inspection with the binoculars told me that we had a small flock of purple finches with a few pine siskins thrown in for good measure. I was ecstatic.
I had never had purple finches at the feeders and only had had passing pine siskins that took a break to refuel during migration. I hoped beyond hope that the birds would stay. So far they have.
These are gorgeous birds, each in their particular plumage. The reddish hues of the male purple finches appear iridescent, especially if the sun reflects off of their foreheads where the winter colors are the brightest. Though much duller and muted, the rich browns and creams of the females’ feathers are equally stunning.
The more demur pine siskins tend to feed with the purple finches and the American goldfinches. Their brown stripes and flash of yellow at the wing tips make them striking birds as well.
The departure of the leaves and arrival of the birds mimic life. We can’t do anything about the past and try as we might, we can’t predict the future. Dull leaves and the arrival of purple finches are proof positive.
To be most productive, I strive to be present in each moment regardless of what change occurs. The mystery of it all sparks a spirit of gratitude.
I’m thankful the birds and trees keep reminding me that change is inevitable. If we pay attention, we can enrich our lives by embracing each subtle transformation, seasonal or otherwise.
For good or for ill, change happens. It is the way life is.
Now, I love autumn, and birding is one of my favorite hobbies. It’s just that bird seasons don’t quite match up with those designed by us humans.
When the calendar flips to August, fall bird migration season has officially begun. It ends come December.
Migration, of course, isn’t confined to only those months. Some shorebirds started their long journeys south in July. Many of them have a long ways to go. For example, pectoral sandpipers nest in the high Arctic tundra and winter throughout South America. Consequently, they need plenty of time to fly those thousands of miles north to south.
The start of migration varies significantly according to the numerous species. Besides shorebirds, different types of birds of prey, songbirds, and waterfowl all migrate.
Those four months are needed to allow all varieties of birds to complete their journeys. Winter in the bird world runs December through February. Spring is March, April, and May. That makes summer the shortest season with just June and July.
It’s not like the birds take notice or even care about months. They behave on natural instincts with recent research indicating that some birds can actually see the earth’s magnetic poles. Stars and the position of the sun in the sky also may motivate our avian friends to embark on their extended trips.
Some birds will migrate only short distances, say from mountainsides to the valleys below. Others migrate medium distances, moving just a few hundred miles south.
Not all birds migrate, however. Some, like American robins, often congregate in flocks once the nesting season is over. Sometimes extreme weather pushes them out of their normal range where they can find the necessary food supply to survive.
Other birds, like eastern bluebirds, will also group up for both warmth and safety. It’s not unusual in the throes of winter to find several bluebirds huddling for warmth in one bird box.
Fall and spring are the seasons most birders relish. They long for the opportunity to see birds that are only passing through the area. They may just get a glimpse of a rare and endangered bird like a Kirtland’s warbler, a bird that nests in the jack pines of northern Michigan and winters in the Bahamas.
In the spring, birds are in their brightest mating colors. The males are the most colorful. The females tend to be duller for practical reasons. They need to be subtler so as not to attract attention to their nests.
It’s just the opposite in the fall. With the breeding season over, the birds transform into less noticeable color schemes. They need to blend in with their surroundings as best they can to be less conspicuous to predators.
When it comes to living, birds need the same essential elements as the rest of us. Water, food, and habitat are crucial for birds to survive, whether nesting or on the move. Forests, fields, fencerows, dead trees, mudflats, marshes, ponds, and waterways all serve as vital habitat, depending on the bird species.
Food is a primary motivator for those that migrate. Swallows and purple martins thrive on insects. That’s why they arrive in the spring and leave when the insect supply diminishes. Of course, they require appropriate shelter, too.
More than half of the 650 species of birds in North America migrate. With migration already underway, it’s why birders everywhere have their binoculars, spotting scopes, and cameras ready for action.
On behalf of birdwatchers everywhere, welcome to fall.
May is for the birds. That’s good news for those of us who live in northern Ohio.
Year in and year out, May tends to be a very pleasant month here. The days grow longer and warmer.
Garden flowers splash welcomed colors against neatly trimmed, emerald lawns. Rainbows of wildflowers carpet forest floors, hiding the decaying leaf litter for six months. Mushrooms and May apples join them.
But what broadens the smiles in many folks from ages four to 94 are the returning birds. Not that people have been disappointed with the aviary species that frequented their backyard feeders in the dormant months.
The colorful songbirds, all decked out in their mating wardrobes, radiate new life into their human audiences. I’m certain the birds are unaware.
You don’t even have to be a serious birder to know that feeling. When the first Baltimore Oriole flashes its black and orange and whistles its distinctive call, it’s officially May.
Out come the store-bought and homemade feeders full of grape jelly. Stand back and let the gorging begin.
This year the birds seemed simply to fall out of the sky. Person after person reported the first of the year Baltimore Oriole, Orchard Oriole, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
It’s amazing how those little hummers remember where the previous year’s feeders hung. If they beat you to the punch, they’re hovering outside your kitchen window waiting for lunch or supper, depending on when their flight landed in your yard.
This year I beat them to it. I had the feeder cleaned and filled with fresh sugar water long before April melded into May. But the birds got the last laugh. The first bird on the hummingbird feeder was a male Baltimore Oriole. Yes, they like a sweet sip now and then, too.
So, out went the oriole feeder. I hardly had stepped away when a male Baltimore Oriole swooped in for his feast. A male Orchard Oriole, a bird that I had never seen feed at the grape jelly station before, soon followed.
Friends near and far reported orioles galore. Their joy mimicked that of the infectious calls of the birds themselves.
Then came another wave of exuberance. Folks from all around called, emailed, and showed me photos of a bird they had seldom had at their feeders before. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks held their own fallout party. Some people reported eight or 10 at a time feeding. Not only are these handsome birds fun to watch, but their song also matches their beauty.
Of course, a few rare birds pass through on their way further north for the summer. American White Pelicans and stately Black-necked Stilts made appearances to the area.
But this time of year, it’s the colorful warblers that serious birders covet. Scores of birders from around the world converge on the Lake Erie shoreline to watch and listen for this annual splendor. They are seldom disappointed.
The Biggest Week in American Birding is held annually from early to mid-May in northwest Ohio’s Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. Scores of migrating birds, warblers, shorebirds, and birds of prey among them, rest and forage in the adjoining marshes, wetlands, and woodlots before heading over the lake.
Even if you can’t make it there, the birds may still come to you. The key is to be on the watch.
You never know what bright and cheery surprise may come your way in May. But look quick, because just like May, some of them might be gone in a vivid flash.
Like children dreaming of Old St. Nick on Christmas Eve, this is the time of year birders have yearned for, longed for, relished.
For hardcore birders, spring migration is a Christmas morning that spans several weeks from mid-March to mid-May. Avid birders are especially on the alert now to find the many species they seek, and some they couldn’t even imagine.
When a rarity shows up like the Rock Wren did last spring, it’s a birding bonanza. The Rock Wren became a rock star. For several days, the bird from America’s southwest was a magnet, attracting folks from far and wide to Holmes County.
Such birds are the exception. The spring migratory norm is to view birds that either return here to nest or to catch a glimpse of those that are just passing through. Depending on the weather, the transients might stay a day or two, or just make a short pit stop to rest and refuel.
The challenge is to be at the right place at the right time to see and hear the birds.
For me, I’m just as happy to note the return of my backyard birds. The Chimney Swifts rattled the fireplace doors as they swooped into our chimney the evening of April 18, the same date as last year.
How do I know? Like most birders, I keep a list of when I see a species for the first time each year. In the birding world, that’s known as the FOY, first of year. For instance, the Red-headed Woodpecker was a day later than last year, arriving April 21.
Today’s birders use social networking sources to track the movement and appearance of the various species. That gives the flocks of birders a heads up on finding and photographing particular birds.
We are fortunate in Ohio to have one of the best locations in the country to observe and hear a wide variety of transitory and returning birds, especially warblers. This time of year both birds and birders pack Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.
A conservation group, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, located at the entrance to Magee Marsh in northwest Ohio, sponsors “America’s Biggest Week in Birding.” In fact, it’s going on right now.
These folks welcome thousands of birders, amateur to professional, in hosting this attractive annual festival. Magee Marsh, a state park, is billed as “the warbler capital of the world.” Having been there on many occasions, I can attest to that.
Birders from around the world converge on Magee Marsh just to watch the warblers and shorebirds come and go. It’s not unusual to observe 20 or more kinds of warblers in just a few hours. Magee Marsh and the surrounding acreage are protected habitat that ensures safe harbor for migrating and nesting birds of all sizes, colors and species.
My first visit to Magee Marsh years ago was indeed like Christmas. A few steps onto the wooden boardwalk and I spotted a variety of colorful warblers decked out in their impressive breeding plumage. The brightly colored little birds looked like Christmas tree ornaments perched on low-hanging tree branches.