Monday, April 25, 2011

Guest Essay: Migratory Birds On Parade

What follows is a guest essay by Nancy Castillo, who along with Lois Geshiwlm owns the Wild Birds Unlimited shop in Saratoga Springs. The Almanack asked Nancy to tells us what migrating birds she is seeing in her yard at this time of year.

The parade has begun – don’t miss the show! A parade of birds, that is. And you don’t have to go far to view it – the show is great right in your own yard!

Some of these birds will stop and stay for the summer, choosing to raise a brood or two in our yards. Others will continue the parade, perhaps all the way to the far reaches of the boreal forest of Canada.

My parade began in mid-March with the arrival of the real harbinger of spring, the Red-winged Blackbird. He serves as an avian grand marshal with a rousing “konk-ler-eeee!” and a suit of black adorned with red and yellow epaulets. The parade he leads will last for weeks, providing us a show of color and sound from migrating birds.

In my yard, the Song Sparrow followed the blackbird in mid-March, scratching for food in the open patches of my still snow-covered yard. A few weeks later, another native sparrow arrived, the Fox Sparrow. They had an easier time foraging for food with their back-scratch technique as the remaining snow had significantly retreated. The Fox Sparrow is one of those migrants in the long-distance parade – they typically don’t breed in New York and the majority breeds in the boreal forest.

Yet another native sparrow, the Chipping Sparrow, arrived in the 2nd week of April. With his smart little rusty cap, he’s the first migrant that will spend the season in my yard, raising 1-2 broods before heading back to the southern states to spend his winter.

A raspy “fee-bee” song alerted me that the Eastern Phoebe was back. This little flycatcher also drops out of the parade to nest in the area. Last year one nested under the eaves of a neighbor’s garage, a favorite location for their mud-mortared nest.

Another native sparrow also marks his arrival by song. “Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” tells me the White-throated Sparrows are here. They’ll forage on the ground beneath the feeders amongst the Dark-eyed Juncos before heading to higher elevations to breed.

A month of the migratory parade has gone by, yet there are many birds yet to arrive. In anticipation, I have filled my hummingbird feeder in case an early migrant passes through. Male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will arrive first, and often the first hummingbird seen for the season is still just passing through. Hummingbird season for us is a “Mother’s Day to Labor Day” affair, though there are always some early and late hummers that push those limits.

So what else can we expect in the second half of the parade? In May, I look forward to the return of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I love to take note of the pattern of red on the males’ breasts as each is unique in size and shape. It’s a good way to get an idea of how many different individuals are visiting your yard.

Shortly after, Baltimore Orioles will return. If you put a feeder out immediately after you see your first oriole of the season, you might be able to attract them down from the treetops to a feeder offering orange halves, grape jelly, mealworms, or nectar. Your chances are best early – after the tent caterpillars emerge, the chances of luring orioles to a feeder decline significantly, though you never know!

In mid-May, we’ll also welcome back the Gray Catbird. Listen for their cat-like little “mew, mew” calls coming from bushes and trees. They may even stop by your feeders if you’re serving a birdseed blend or suet that has fruit in it.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers will return in May as well, drilling their sap wells in trees like Mountain Ash. The sap attracts insects that the sapsucker will feast upon, but watch for other creatures like butterflies and even hummingbirds check out the sap and the insects trapped in it.

The migratory bird parade marching through our backyard brings a welcome blast of color and sound following a long, drab winter. And the best part is that the parade comes to you – all you need to do is open your eyes and ears and heart to enjoy it!

Photos: Above, Rose-breasted Grosbeak; middle, Purple Finch; below Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

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