Having a hummingbird feeder near your home and being able to regularly monitor the activity around this colorful structure can provide some insight into the summer life of this tiny, iridescent bird.
When the hummingbird returns in the spring, this petite creature tends to seek out the same general region that served as its home the previous summer. Older adults are known to claim the same surroundings which they used the past year as their breeding territory.
Since these birds are already familiar with the area and know the location of various sources of food, it is soon after their arrival that they appear outside a window to take advantage of the artificial nectar placed there. » Continue Reading.
After several days without a significant rain, an observant gardener pulling up clumps of weeds, or a perceptive hiker traveling through a pine forest or a meadow near a stand of conifers may notice a glob of saliva-like fluid attached to a wildflower stalk or the stem of a piece of grass.
Occasionally referred to by some people as snake spit, or frog spit, this common frothy deposit of whitish, watery liquid is neither associated with a snake or frog, nor is it produced by the salivary glands of any creature. The spit-like fluid seen on various plants during the early days of summer in the Adirondacks is a form of protective enclosure that surrounds a small insect known as the spittlebug. » Continue Reading.
Unlike eagles, hawks, and others, pigeons are an Adirondack bird surrounded by neither lore nor legend. Yet for more than a century, they were players in a remarkable system of interaction between strangers, birds, and their owners. Others were tied to noted historical events, and a few were undisputed participants in major criminal activity.
The bird referred to here is the homing pigeon. According to the Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State, the Rock Dove is “commonly known as the domestic or homing pigeon,” and is a non-native, having been introduced from Europe in the early 1600s. They are often mistakenly called carrier pigeons, and the confusion is understandable. There are carrier pigeons, and there are pigeons that carry things, but they’re not the same bird. Homing pigeon are the ones used to carry messages and for pigeon racing.
Racing them has proven very popular. Regionally, there is the Schenectady Homing Pigeon Club (more than 60 years old), which in the 1930s competed with the Albany Flying Club and the Amsterdam Pigeon Club.
The existence of those clubs, the carrying of messages, and other related activities are all based on a long-studied phenomenon that is still debated: how the heck do homing pigeons do what they do? Basically, if taken to a faraway location and released, they usually return to their home, and in a fairly straight line.
Flocks have been released and tracked by airplanes, and transmitters have been attached to the birds, confirming their direct routes. They use a variety of navigation methods, the most important and least understood of which involves the earth’s magnetic orientation.
In recent decades, Cornell University’s famed ornithology unit summarized their findings after extreme testing: “Homing pigeons can return from distant, unfamiliar release points.” And what did these scientists do to challenge the birds’ abilities? Plenty.
According to the study, “Older pigeons were transported to the release site inside sealed metal containers, supplied with bottled air, anesthetized, and placed on rotating turntables, all of which should make it hard for them to keep track of their outward journey.” The birds still homed effectively.
This unusual ability has been enjoyed and exploited for centuries. In 1898, in order to keep up with European military powers, the US Navy established the Homing Pigeon Service. One use was ship-to-shore communication in any conditions—when pigeons sent aboard the ship were released with a message attached, they flew directly back to their home loft.
Their use during World Wars I and II is legendary, and many were decorated with medals. In 1918, pigeon racing was temporarily banned in the United States to ensure that all birds were available for the use of the military.
In peacetime, homing pigeons were treated with near-universal respect and were weekly visitors to the North Country. Whenever one with a metal band or a message tube attached to it was found, standard protocol was followed by all citizens. The birds were immediately given water and food. If they appeared injured, the information from the leg band was given to local police, who tried to contact the owner.
Caring for the birds, whether ill or healthy, was automatic, and it continued until the journey was resumed. For more than 130 years, Adirondack weekly newspaper columns mentioned the landing of homing pigeons (but usually called them carrier pigeons). If a bird somehow appeared to be off course, the leg band information might appear in a short article or in an advertisement.
That informal system was widely used and religiously followed. To further protect the birds (and the system itself) and to confirm their importance, New York State’s Forest, Fish, and Game Commission made it law: “No person shall take or interfere with any… homing pigeon if it have the name of its owner stamped upon its wing or tail, or wear a ring or seamless leg band with its registered number stamped thereon, or have any other distinguishing mark.”
“Homers” were often used for races from 100 to 500 miles. They didn’t always alight where the owner intended, usually due to stormy weather. Many of the birds that landed in the North Country came from Montreal, where their use for racing and message carrying was common.
In 1912, one Canadian visitor settled inside the walls of Clinton Prison at Dannemora. The warden dutifully cared for the bird and attempted to contact its owner.
In 1898, little Miss Gertrude Hough of Lowville received a letter by US Mail from the Los Angeles post office. It had arrived in LA attached to a pigeon that had been released by Gertrude’s father from Catalina Island, more than 20 miles offshore.
And in 1936, a homing pigeon landed on the window sill of a Malone home, where it was treated to the proper care. Well beyond the norm, the bird’s journey had begun in Montana.
Invariably, efficient systems like bank accounts, credit cards, the internet, and homing pigeons are usurped for other purposes. In recent years, pigeons have been used by ingenious crooks to smuggle drugs from Colombia and diamonds from African mines.
In both cases, the North Country was light-years ahead of them. In 1881, an elaborate case of diamond smuggling from Canada into St. Lawrence County was uncovered. A Rensselaer Falls farmer brought to customs authorities a dead “carrier pigeon” with part of a turkey feather, filled with diamonds, attached to the bird’s leg.
During the investigation, two more diamond-carrying birds were shot. It was discovered that baskets of birds were being mailed to locations in Canada, and other flocks were located south of the border, awaiting duty. Shipments of pigeons had originated at DeKalb Junction, Heuvelton, Rensselaer Falls, and Richville, and the value of diamonds successfully smuggled was estimated at $800,000 (equal to about $17 million today).
During Prohibition, both booze and drug smuggling were rampant. In 1930, US officials were tipped off that a number of homing pigeons were routinely being shipped north into Quebec. Upon release, they crossed back into northern New York.
Authorities at Ogdensburg were put on the case when it was found that each pigeon bore a payload of about one ounce of cocaine. At times it was literally a fly-by-night operation—some of the birds had been trained to fly under cover of darkness.
Homing pigeons also played a role in regional historical events. In 1920, a military balloon launched from Rockaway Point in New York City sailed across the Adirondacks. Last sighted above Wells in Hamilton County, it then vanished. Extended high-profile searches turned up nothing, and three men aboard the balloon were lost.
Such missions routinely carried homing pigeons for air-to-ground communication. It was believed that an injured pigeon (broken leg) found on a Parishville (St. Lawrence County) farm had been launched from the balloon, and that its message had been lost during the accident that broke the bird’s leg. It was suspected that the balloon had finally gone down over Lake Ontario.
One of the most famous kidnapping cases in American history occurred in 1932 when the Lindbergh baby disappeared. When the body was found, nearly every newspaper in the land covered the story the next day with multiple articles.
Among the first stories was one emanating from Lowville, New York, where a homing pigeon had landed at the home of Arthur Jones. The bird’s leg had a non-traditional attachment—a piece of twine holding a paper tag bearing the inscription, “William Allen, New Jersey.” It was William Allen of New Jersey who found the Lindbergh child’s corpse.
Lead investigator Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf (Stormin’ Norman’s father) followed up on the information and then issued a statement: “Reports from Lowville show that no registry tag was found on the carrier pigeon. This practically precludes the possibility of further tracing the pigeon unless the owner of the same voluntarily reports its absence.”
In June, 1936, before more than two dozen reporters and celebrities, former World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey and his wife released a homing pigeon from the tower of the Empire State Building at 11:20 am. Less than five hours later it arrived at Scaroon Manor on Schroon Lake, bearing the first honeymoon reservation of the season.
It wasn’t for Dempsey’s honeymoon—it was just a publicity stunt to keep his name active in the media, and certainly raised the manor’s profile as well.
Photo Top: Homing pigeon with message in tube.
Photo Middle: WW I military troops in trench, sending messages by pigeon.
Photo Bottom: Winged members of the military.
Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.
It isn’t always enough just to watch birds — bird watchers are always asking questions about them too. WHY is that cardinal attacking my car? WHY don’t birds fall off branches as they sleep? WHY is bird poop white? Each year, thousands of bird watchers call and write to experts at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. More than 100 answers to common and occasionally off-the-wall questions are packed into a new Cornell Lab Bird Q & A app from Tipitap and available from iTunes for $2.99. The Bird Q & A app is a way to learn more about why birds do what they do. Although it is not a field guide, it includes hundreds of bird photos accompanied by sounds from the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library archive — the largest collection of bird sounds in the world. Questions and answers can be explored in categories such as “Fact or Fiction,” “Nests & Eggs,” “Bird Songs,” and “Feathers & Flight.” Example: Did you know that feathers are composed of a substance found in no other animal tissue except alligator claws?
After absorbing some of this bird lore, users can test themselves with built-in quizzes in “novice,” “skilled,” and “hotshot” categories. They can choose quizzes on bird facts, identifying bird species, or recognizing birds by their songs and calls.
The informative, occasionally quirky content is written by bird expert and author Laura Erickson, and is a complement to The Bird Watching Answer Book, from Storey Publishing. A portion of the proceeds goes into bird conservation programs at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
For those people familiar with nature, the uniquely-shaped silhouette of a large bird in flight with a set of thin legs jutting well beyond its tail, and a neck that coils back into a compressed “S” creates an unmistakable image.
Additionally, the slow and methodical manner in which this lanky giant beats its sizeable wings helps make the great blue heron one of the easiest birds to recognize as it flies, even from a distance of well over a half mile. The great blue heron is a wading bird and uses its stilt-like legs to stand and walk through aquatic areas, some of which may be covered with up to a foot of water. It is in places like these that this predator waits quietly for small fish, frogs, salamanders, and other similar size animals to stray within striking distance. Once a victim is spotted close by, the heron draws its head back, simultaneously stepping forward while thrusting its long and pointed bill directly at the target. Rather than spear its prey, the great blue heron attempts to grab hold of the potential meal and swallow it quickly before it can wriggle free.
From late spring through mid August the amount of time an adult heron spends hunting increases significantly. Not only must the adult heron satisfy its own appetite, but toward the end of May, when the 3 or 4 eggs in its nest hatch, the bird must also meet the demands of the young for a steady diet of animal protein.
For the first several weeks after the eggs hatch, one of the parents remains either in the nest or very close to it in order to protect the babies from being attacked by a forest predator, like a raccoon, or eagle. The other parent travels to a favored feeding site, such as a section of marsh, the edge of a slow moving river, or the weedy shoreline of a lake or pond. There it tries to kill enough creatures to fill its crop for transport back to its nest. Once there, the parent regurgitates chunks of the previously swallowed material into the open mouth of its babies. The constant demand for food by the developing nestlings causes the great blue heron to hunt for prey even during the night, especially when a full moon provides adequate illumination for it to see.
After the first month, the young herons become large enough to prevent a parent from spending more than a few minutes in the nest. At this stage in their development, the nestlings require so much food that both parents are forced to hunt for the majority of the day leaving their babies unattended. As the nestlings get older the parents no longer feed them from their mouth, but rather drop the catch off into the nest and let the young birds fight over it.
Because there is safety in numbers, a pair of great blue heron makes its nest close to the nest of other great blue herons. A colony, also known as a heronry, may contain from a dozen nests to over a hundred. The number is highly dependent on the suitability of hunting areas in the surrounding region. For example, a heronry near Lake Champlain is able to support many more pairs of herons than ones located in sections of the Park where favorable aquatic areas are scattered over much greater distances.
In order to minimize the chance of predation from climbing creatures, the great blue heron prefers to construct it stick platform as high as possible in the tallest deciduous trees at the site in which a heronry becomes established. Since a heron nest is around three feet in diameter, the mass of sticks used in its construction can become quite substantial, and the supporting limbs beneath it must be large enough to hold the weight. Additionally, the nest must be tightly woven into the framework of the twigs from the supporting limbs to prevent this structure from being torn loose during periods of high wind, such as those that accompany strong thunderstorms. In most instances, a pair of herons will refurbish the nest that they occupied the previous year if it was able to withstand the fierce gales that battered it during the preceding winter season.
It takes the nestlings almost two full months before they fledge, and even then these young birds depend on their parents for frequent meals until they can get the knack of hunting for themselves.
There are many creatures that prey on the bounty of animal life that exists in and around wetlands; however, few of these stand out against the background as does the great blue heron here in the Adirondacks.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
Tom Kalinowski has written several books on nature in the Adirondacks.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is reminding New Yorkers to keep their distance and not to disturb newborn fawns or other young wildlife as many animals are in the peak season for giving birth or hatching young.
Finding a fawn deer lying by itself is fairly common. Many people assume that young wildlife found alone are abandoned, helpless and need assistance for their survival. In nearly all cases this is a mistake, and typically human interaction does more damage than good. If you see a fawn or other newborn wildlife, enjoy your encounter, but for the sake of their well being, it is important to keep it brief and maintain some distance. » Continue Reading.
Although water levels have finally dropped below flood stage on Lake Champlain this week, a Flood Warning remains in effect and facilities and businesses near low-lying shorelines continue to be heavily impacted by high waters.
The Ausable Point Campground remains closed, as is the campground access road. Many Valcour Island campsites and access points are still flooded and due to the high waters, floating docks have not been installed and bathrooms are closed at Peru Dock, Port Douglas, Willsboro Bay and other boat launches. Vermont closed all access to Lake Champlain except for Tabor Point, malletts Bay, Lamoille River, Converse Bay, and Larabee’s Point. Quebec closed all access and shut down boating to prevent further shoreline erosion due to wakes. » Continue Reading.
June is the peak of the nesting season in the Adirondacks, and among the many birds currently involved in the process of producing offspring is the black-capped chickadee. Known to everyone that maintains a feeder in winter, this friendly and perky songster enters into its breeding season in mid spring as nesting territories gradually become established, and the winter flock dissolves. As a general rule, the dominant male and female in the flock pair up and lay claim to the most favorable area within the immediate surroundings. These birds tend to be the oldest members of the flock and likely paired with each other during the previous year. The next ranking male and female in the flock’s well established hierarchy are also likely to form a mating bond and take control of much of the remaining area used by the flock for their winter territory. Any remaining pairs of birds that have survived the winter may either attempt to establish a breeding territory in whatever unoccupied parcels of forest remain in the immediate vicinity, or they may relocate to other areas that were avoided in winter because of limited food resources in these places.
With the approach of the nesting season, chickadees begin to incorporate much greater quantities of animal matter into their diet. Even though there may still be seeds available at feeders, these birds start to concentrate more of their time searching for small bugs which are rich in both protein and fats. Egg development within the female requires high amounts of these two nutrients, especially protein. And while the males do not need the same high levels of protein as the females, they still gather these nitrogen enriched morsels of invertebrate matter and offer them to their mate to help her with her intake of vital nutrients.
After each pair has settled on a particular parcel of forest, they then begin to search for a nest site. Like the woodpeckers, the chickadee constructs its nest in a wooden cavity. Typically, a dead, partially rotted poplar or white birch stub that is roughly 4 inches in diameter is favored. The soft, almost spongy interior of these standing columns allows the chickadee to chip away and pull out fragments of wood from the inside of the very upper section of the stub. The male and female both work intermittently during the day for nearly a week until they have completed a nearly 8 inch deep chamber that will serve to shelter their eggs, and then their nestlings. Because such trees are never very high, chickadee cavities tend to be within 15 feet of the ground, with some being built at eye level.
In places where a dead and partially rotted stub can not be found, or in spots where the potential nest sites are deemed unacceptable because of some threat, like the close presence of a red squirrel nest, the chickadee resorts to placing its nest in a cavity that already exists. Sometimes a pair of chickadees may settle into a chamber excavated by a woodpecker. The pair is also known to use a nest box when a rotted stub can not be found. Since chickadees strongly prefer to take up residence in a cavity that they excavate themselves, some people attempt to attract these birds to a nest box by packing it with small wood chips, like those produced by a sharp chain saw.
After the chamber is completed, the cavity is then lined with a layer of soft material, like hair, downy feathers or strands of moss. The female then begins the process of laying eggs, and like most other birds, she deposits a single egg in the nest each morning until the clutch is completed.
Then follows the process of incubation which lasts nearly two weeks. Next is the very challenging chore of trying to keep the nestlings well fed. Like a female that is developing eggs, the nestlings require a diet composed of spiders, insects, millipedes and other bugs. During the summer, people are encouraged to take down their feeders, or stop placing seeds out in them. Maintaining a feed in summer serves to attract raccoons, bears and other unwanted wildlife visitors. While it may seem cruel to completely cut the birds off from their regular source of food, these creatures no longer rely on such items for their nourishment. This is the time when bugs become the food of choice for most birds during their nesting season here in the Adirondacks.
They say it is the most fun you can have outside with your clothes on. And, no it is not bushwhacking through an Adirondack wilderness. It is the Birdathon, the National Audubon Society’s largest annual fundraising event and the globe’s biggest birding competition. It is happening soon and it may be taking place in some parts of the Adirondacks. The Birdathon is a 24-hour long marathon competition to find as many bird species as possible within a given region. Species can be identified by sight and/or sound and you are free to bird for as many or as few hours within the 24-hour duration as you desire. Most people participate in teams but if you are of the anti-social persuasion then it is perfectly fine to go solo. » Continue Reading.
“Putting a bluebird nesting box near a school or house brings wildlife closer to you,” says NYS DEC Wildlife Biologist John O’Connor, “ Children can then become interested in wildlife and that knowledge will stay with them for life.”
O’Connor says, “The New York State Bluebird Society is a good starting place. Bluebirds look like robins except the males are blue instead of grey on the back.” The Eastern bluebird is a medium-sized thrush related to the robin and can be found in farmlands, orchards and fields. You will not find this bird at your feeder because it eats grubs (yippee), insects and berries.
In Elizabethtown this weekend (May 14) the Fish and Game Club will be hosting a Bluebird Education day at 10:00 a.m.. Kathy Linker of the NYS Bluebird Society will be on hand to lend her expertise as well as the opportunity for all registrants to build a nesting box.
O’Connor says, “It is not too late to build and put up a bluebird nesting box in the Adirondacks. The birds have most likely been in the nesting phase and are just starting to bring materials to the boxes.”
You do not need to attend this workshop to make a nesting box. Here are plans using only one plank of wood.
“The bluebird is a cavity nesting bird and there are other birds out there that are more aggressive,” say O’Connor. “They nest in holes. The nesting boxes give the bluebirds a safe place to nest from urban sprawl, predators and other birds competing for the same space. House wrens and house sparrows compete with the bluebirds for nesting holes. The wrens will even go into the box and pull out the bluebird’s nest and destroy its eggs. ”
For children it is important to realize that these songbirds not only provide hours of entertainment but are a natural insect deterrent. Bluebirds are said to be tolerant of human interaction, if monitoring the nesting boxes, one can easily peek inside to check on the nest. Children can be part of the process in assuring the survival of these native songbirds.
Take the Teddy Roosevelt Birding Challenge this spring in the Adirondacks or join birders from across the country during June’s birding weekend celebrations in the Adirondacks. See boreal birds like the black-backed woodpecker, three-toed woodpecker, boreal chickadee, spruce grouse, Bicknell’s thrush and several migrating warblers.
Join friends and fellow birders at the 9th Annual Adirondack Birding Celebration June 3-5, 2011 at the Paul Smith’s College Interpretive Center in Paul Smiths. The Adirondack Park Institute will host birding trips, lectures, workshops and the popular Teddy Roosevelt Birding Challenge. A special keynote address will be given by noted bird expert, author and naturalist Scott Weidensaul. Registration opened May 1, 2011. For more information or to register, call (518) 327-3376 or log onto AdirondackParkInstitute.org. The 7th Annual Birding Festival in Hamilton County is slated for June 10-12 in partnership with Audubon NY. Birders will travel through remote and wild forest areas of Hamilton County, including: Speculator, Lake Pleasant, Piseco & Morehouse, Blue Mountain Lake, Indian Lake, Long Lake, Raquette Lake and Inlet. See wood warblers and Boreal Birds like the Olive-sided and Yellow Bellied Fly Catchers, Gray Jays, three-toed woodpeckers and boreal chickadees. Guided walks, canoe excursions and evening presentations add to this weekend of birding in the Adirondacks. Be sure to check out National Historic Landmark Great Camp Sagamore, a vintage Vanderbilt Camp and 27 building complex. Guide walking and birding tours are available.
It is always difficult to predict when the ice will go out on a given body of water in the Adirondacks, however, it is easy to say when that waterway will be occupied by a loon, as this symbol of the northern wilderness always seems to arrive within hours of the ice disappearing.
The urge to return to its breeding territory is especially strong in male loons. Because of a recent population increase in this species, there can be intense competition for the remote sections of the large lakes and back country ponds that are highly attractive to this bird with the haunting voice. » Continue Reading.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is reminding hunters that the 2011 spring turkey season opens on May 1 in all of upstate New York lying north of the Bronx-Westchester County boundary.
Turkey hunters must have a turkey hunting permit in addition to their small game hunting or sportsman license. Shooting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise to noon each day and hunters may take 2 bearded turkeys during the spring season, but only 1 bird per day.
Rifles or handguns firing a bullet may not be used. Hunters may hunt with a shotgun or handgun loaded with shot sizes no larger than No. 2 or smaller than No. 8, or with a bow and arrow. Successful hunters must fill out the tag which comes with their turkey permit and immediately attach it to any turkey harvested.
For more information about turkey hunting in New York, see the 2010-11 Hunting and Trapping Regulations Guide or visit the “Turkey Hunting” pages of the DEC website.
Be sure to follow the cardinal rules of hunting safety: (1) assume every gun is loaded; (2) control the muzzle; (3) keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot; (4) be absolutely sure of your target and what may be beyond it; and (5) Don’t stalk, set-up with your back against a large tree and call birds to you.
To find a sportsman education class in your area, go online or call 1-888-HUNT-ED2 (1-888-486-8332).
Turkey Results from 2010:
An analysis of the 2010 spring turkey take, including a county-by-county breakdown, can be found on the DEC website. Take figures for the 2010 fall turkey season and county-by-county breakdown can be found here.
DEC Seeks Turkey Hunters for Ruffed Grouse Drumming Survey – Turkey hunters in pursuit of that wary gobbler in the spring are ideally suited for monitoring ruffed grouse during the breeding season. The characteristic sound of a drumming male grouse is as much a part of the spring woods as yelping hens and gobbling toms. Turkey hunters can record the number of grouse they hear drumming while afield to help us track the distribution and abundance of this game bird. To get a survey form, go online or call (518) 402-8886.
To participate in DEC’s Summer Wild Turkey Sighting Survey or other wildlife surveys visit the “Citizen Science” page of the DEC website.
Do you have photos from a spring turkey hunt you would like to share? DEC has created a Hunting and Trapping Photo Gallery for junior hunters (ages 12-15), young trappers (under age 16), and hunters who have harvested their first big or small game animal. If you are the parent or legal guardian of a junior hunter, or if you are an adult who would like to share your first successful hunt, visit the photo gallery on the DEC website.
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!
Patches of snow that remain in open areas and along forest edges, and the reluctance of the soil to completely thaw have impacted the seasonal routines of numerous forms of wildlife, including the woodcock. Yet, despite the adversities created by the weather, most woodcock are already engaged in breeding, as can be easily noted by visiting certain settings after the sun has set.
The woodcock is a plump, mottled tannish-brown bird that is seldom seen during the day because of its extremely effective protective coloration, and its preference for remaining inactive when the sun is above the horizon. It is during the fading twilight of evening, and as the sky begins to brighten before dawn that this odd-looking bird ventures from a sheltered spot on the forest floor and begins to forage. With its long, hook-tipped bill, the woodcock is ideally adapted for extracting earthworms from the soil. By inserting this lengthy beak into the dirt, the woodcock is capable of sensing any nearby worms, or other soil invertebrates. The high concentration of nerve cells that exist within its bill are attuned to the minute vibrations generated by worms as they ever so gradually move through the soil. Once it detects and locates an invertebrate, the woodcock quickly attempts to insert its bill directly over the potential meal, grab hold of it, and then pull it from its earthen surroundings.
Because the ground is still partially frozen, or covered with patches of snow in many of the deciduous and mixed forest edges preferred by the woodcock, this bird temporarily concentrates its evenings and early mornings in places in which the soil has thawed and worms have become active. Open, south facing hillsides and wetlands where the sun and high water events have caused the snow to melt are places sought out by the woodcock in early spring. Alder thickets are particularly attractive to this bird as they provide a dense layer of ground cover as well as a wealth of soil invertebrates during the spring. Even in summer, when hot and dry weather forces worms and many soil bugs in open and dry sites deep into the soil below the reach of this bird, alder areas provide conditions favorable to a foraging woodcock.
Although the woodcock’s coloration and markings perfectly match that of a deciduous forest floor or the ground in an alder thicket, the males come into an open, grassy setting before they eat in order to announce their presence. The loud, sharp, nasal-sounding note bleated by the male is a far cry from the melodious tunes produced by many of our feathered songsters, yet this call serves a similar purpose. After repeating this short squawk for several minutes, the woodcock then takes to the air to perform an aerial display that is also part of its mating ritual.
The tips of the woodcock’s primary flight feathers produce a distinct whistling-twitter sound when air quickly flows past them. This is why a woodcock makes a similar twitter noise when it’s flushed from a daytime resting spot.
The aerial display of the woodcock is difficult to follow in the dwindling twilight, especially on overcast nights. When the sky is clear, however, and a full moon has ascended above the horizon, it is possible to watch this bird circle the forest clearing that it has claimed, and perform a series of dives that bring it back to its singing perch on the ground. Taking an evening walk to a forest clearing near an alder thicket or to a stand of young hardwoods after the daytime breeze has subsided, and the first stars of the night (which are usually not stars, but planets) are just becoming visible, often results in noting a woodcock’s presence.
A fair number of these occurrences, however, center on hearing the characteristic sounds made by this plump, short-legged bird, rather than actually seeing it. It is the distinct vocalization made by the woodcock as it stands in the open, yet shrouded by darkness, that alerts other woodcocks in the area, and the humans attuned to the sounds of nature, that the process of creating another generation of woodcocks is already underway.