The joyous return of the migrating birds


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.

Male Red-bellied Woodpecker.

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.

Northern Flicker

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.

Red-breasted Nuthatch.

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.

A male Northern Cardinal braved an ice storm in search of food.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019