Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, August 18, 2011

August Birding

(Transcript of today's For the Birds)
Last year, 2010, I spent the second half of August and the first few days of September staring at and photographing birds in our cherry trees, which were laden with fruit. At any moment, the tree might have half a dozen tanagers, orioles, and warblers, along with robins, jays, chickadees, and hummingbirds.

Scarlet Tanager in my cherry tree

I couldn’t imagine an August being any more wonderful. This year the cherries ripened at least three weeks earlier than last year, and were fewer in number. They started turning red in early July and were totally gone by August 9, over a week before most early migrants arrived. I did have a couple of orioles, two Cape May Warblers, a host of young robins and jays, and plenty of neighborhood squirrels and chipmunks.

Baltimore Oriole in Russ's cherry tree

But if the cherries didn’t lure in much variety, it turns out that I’m still having at least as much fun watching my backyard birds this August as I did last year. The most joyful element in this year’s backyard birding has been the flock of Evening Grosbeaks that arrived on August 4. I’d gone well over a decade since last seeing flocks of them in my yard, but for the past two weeks, I’ve been waking up to their calls, and have been seeing them in my box elder and maple trees, bird bath, and feeders all day every day. I’ve been able to get lots of splendid photos by hanging out various windows. Evening Grosbeaks were a constant presence in my yard back in the 1980s, and having them back again fills me with contentment even as I realize they’re almost certainly not going to be a constant presence anytime soon.

Evening Grosbeak

Their constant calls may be luring in other birds who happen to be passing over, because I seem to have more of other species than normal this early in August, too. Goldfinches and Purple Finches are around most of the time, along with Red-breasted Nuthatches. I’m hoping that I’ll get lots of fall warbler photos as their migration swells.

American Goldfinch

Adult male hummingbirds are at the peak of their migration right now, and adult females are starting to move through, too. For one brief and shining moment, I had another species—probably a Rufous Hummingbird—but it was instantly chased off by a Ruby-throat. I only noticed that it was different because it was noticeably smaller than the male Ruby-throat. Checking for vagrants makes hummingbird-watching more suspenseful, but it’s fun and exciting even when the only birds are Ruby-throats. I’ve got three feeders set up, and the hummers fight over them. Their sputtery notes catch my attention whenever they come in. I just got a new flash for my camera, and I’m going to be playing with it on sunny days to try to freeze the hummers’ wingbeats.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

A family of baby jays has been visiting my feeders and bird bath. Their crests and back are grayer than on older birds, but otherwise these adorable birds look pretty indistinguishable from adults, except for their awkwardness when learning new skills. They’re especially clumsy when trying to get fruits—their feet are too big to wrap around the outer twigs of most trees and shrubs, and a couple of them figured out how to get cherries by simply crashing into them in flight, and then dropping to the ground to pick them up. One of my baby robins seemed to have worked out the same strategy.

Blue Jay grabbing one of the last cherries

I’ve also been watching a baby Mourning Dove figure out independent life. I got an amazing series of photos as the little bird preened on the power line to my house. Yes, watching birds in August is as rich and satisfying as birding can possibly be.

Mourning Dove