Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, May 4, 2020

Migration Progressing

Blue-headed Vireo
I didn't have my camera when I saw the Blue-headed Vireo on Friday, but did capture him singing. 
Right now, in the middle of a pandemic, a lot of people seem to be turning to nature. And no form of nature is so easily seen and heard as birds. So newspapers all over the world have been doing stories about people suddenly taking up birdwatching, either in their own backyards or in nearby wilder places that allow easy social distancing. I’ve been enjoying hearing from blog readers and radio and podcast listeners about the birds they’re noticing for the first time. Hearing from new birders always reminds me of my first spring birding. There were so many birds in my field guide, and a lot of them looked indistinguishable, so a lot of the birds I saw that year went unidentified.

Russ and I lived in an apartment complex with no trees anywhere about—we put up a bird feeder, but the only birds that came were House Sparrows and Brown-headed Cowbirds. I mostly birded at the arboretum and various woodlots and other spots on the Michigan State University campus. I’ll never forget my first eye-popping Ring-necked Pheasant, Baltimore Oriole, and American Goldfinch. Even Blue Jays were stunningly new.  I didn’t see one hummingbird, Scarlet Tanager, or Rose-breasted Grosbeak that entire spring—I had to wait until summer when I took a field ornithology class.

Birding every day starting March 2, I got my lifelist up to 19 by the end of April ’75, and to 40 by the end of May. It doesn’t sound like much, but as few birds as I saw that first spring, I sure loved the experience of finding and identifying those birds. To put that in perspective, I saw 20 or more backyard species just about every single day this April, and 42 species in all during March and April combined. I expect my backyard list will be up to 70 or 80 by the time this May is over, doubling what I saw my entire first spring. But I’ll never be able to top the thrill of discovery when every single bird was new. 

Trumpeter Swan
I did not have my camera with on Friday when a pair of Trumpeter Swans flew over my head--the only way I can see them from my backyard. And I'd just turned my recorder off, so didn't capture their sound. But they'll remain in my mind, my heart, and on my eBird list. 
Over the past week, I’ve seen at least one new year bird each day, adding Trumpeter Swan, House Wren, Blue-headed Vireo, and Palm Warbler just this weekend. In the coming days, orioles, hummingbirds, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, catbirds, thrashers, and a lot of warblers will turn up. People in the Twin Cities are seeing orioles and hummingbirds already. One of my oriole feeders has been at the ready since Friday, and I’ll set out hummingbird feeders today.

Trees are in bud right now, but I’m not seeing any opening leaves yet, so I’m glad insectivorous birds aren’t here. They pretty much time migration to coincide with leaf-out, to fuel their travels on the tiny insects emerging in those brand-new leaves. Birders often like when warblers jump the gun, arriving while branches are still bare. Yes, warblers are easier to see without concealing leaves, but I’m happier knowing the warblers I see have plenty of food. When they do arrive, I’ll be outside with my camera to greet them.

I’ve set a goal of making an ambient sound recording of early morning birds every day this May and June. Sound quality varies from day to day—high winds yesterday made my recording pretty noisy—but I’m thoroughly enjoying listening to the birds no matter what, and projects like this distract me from the news.  Being in a high-risk category for the coronavirus, I’m glad to be living on Peabody Street where I can have so much fun. But wherever I happen to be, I’m always glad to be alive during spring migration. I hope you’re enjoying spring, and the arrival of new birds, too. Stay safe and well, dear reader.

Baltimore Oriole
Get ready! These guys are almost back!