Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Migration Update

American Robin

I have a new puppy, and I started keeping a life list of birds I see with her. I also just got new hearing aids. Because of these two changes in my life, I’ve been paying even closer attention to birds in my backyard than normal, and our sudden burst of spring is bringing in new arrivals every day. Ryan Brady spotted both a Eurasian Wigeon and a Eurasian Tree Sparrow in Wisconsin over near Ashland. Nothing so exotic has appeared in my neck of the woods, but I've been having a jolly time nonetheless.

A small flock of robins arrived in my neighborhood over two weeks ago, searching out old crab apples and dried up buckthorn. I’d occasionally hear their alarm notes, and Pip paid attention to them scuffling through the leaf litter behind our yard, but suddenly one morning last week they were singing away, each one trying to stake out a territory. It was like a switch was flipped—now their songs will be part of the morning soundtrack every day until July. The first day they broke into song, two got into quite a battle, which was interesting enough for me but absolutely fascinating for my little Pip. Every bit of their territory is important, and so now even if we get a late spring blizzard, they won’t want to lose ground and will keep up with the daily singing unless conditions grow dire indeed.
A few days after the robins started singing, Song Sparrows were suddenly in full song. That cheerful tune always lifts my spirits.

Hermit Thrush

Two rusty-tailed, streak-breasted birds appear every April, and mine both appeared on the same day this weekend. Three Hermit Thrushes appeared in the leaf litter where robins had been gathering a week before. One sat on my fence briefly, catching my eye, and then as I carefully scanned the ground and shrubs I picked out all three.

Fox Sparrow

While I was watching them—seeing the clean, smooth appearance of their back and wings, slender bill, and robin-like shape, I suddenly heard a most welcome and familiar tune—a Fox Sparrow. People do occasionally confuse Fox Sparrows and Hermit Thrushes because of the rusty tail, but our Eastern Fox Sparrows are so distinctive—plump and sturdy looking, with a thick beak, gray and brown face, and sparrow markings on wings and back—that after you’ve seen them both, you won’t confuse them again except when you get a quick glimpse of one flying away, showing off nothing but that striking rusty tail. Hermit Thrushes virtually never sing until they reach their breeding grounds, so I’ve never heard their ethereal tune in my yard. But Fox Sparrows are another story. I’ve had whole choruses of them singing away during April blizzards while migration is at a peak. I do think this is the first year I heard one before I saw it. Each day now for a week or so, my little backyard troupe of migrants will be increasing.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

The trees are starting to bud out, a bit earlier than normal, and I’ve been seeing the first swarming insects and even one mourning cloak butterfly. One lovely bit of proof that insects are aloft was the beautiful Yellow-rumped Warbler that showed up yesterday.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

This weekend Pip and I saw our first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker of the year. These handsome medium-sized woodpeckers are pretty quiet most of the time, so many people don’t notice them, but if you have an aspen tree, this is an excellent time to start searching through the branches for one. Flickers are starting to show up, too, now—they spend a lot of time on the ground feeing on ants.

By April 14, Pip’s life list was at 60, and will start growing by leaps and bounds now, and I wake up every morning thinking about all the possibilities. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.