Watching for Migratory Birds
Friday, June 7, 2019
By MCHT Land Steward Kirk Gentalen
“You can observe just by watching.” – Yogi Berra
If you are contemplating taking on “nature observation” as a lifestyle choice, there are a few things you should know up front.
First off, “you can observe just by watching” (thank you, Yogi Berra); one way or another, just about everyone has the capacity to observe. Secondly, nature observation is a (relatively) inexpensive hobby.
See for yourself
Grab a pair of binoculars (or not), a book for notes, and maybe a book on birds and you are well on your way. The most important tool to have is curiosity. Writing the “Nature Bummin'” column for The St. George Dragon the last couple of years (or so) has been great for me in many ways. It’s been wonderful to share stories, but just as wonderful to hear the nature stories of others.
Tell me about it
Once word gets out that you are interested in a topic, people start to share their own experiences with you, and nature observation is no different.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me tell you: having people sharing is a total win for me. I am way more interested in learning what others have been seeing than talking about what I see. (I mean, I already know what I see, and if I want to learn more I can’t think of a better way than to learn what others are seeing. And so yes, I am using you for knowledge. Could be worse…)
For the month of May, the talk on the “nature” streets was all about birds. Birds are wonderful year-round of course, but spring is a season that combines the wonder of migration, the energy and anticipation of an upcoming breeding season, and a resurgence of forest life in general to create a lively bird scene. It should be noted: spring songbird migration is often given as a reason (one of many) as to why my spouse Amy and I moved to Maine. We are big fans.
Anyway, the stories floating around have been great: a family of woodcocks in a backyard; a photo of a broad-winged hawk shared with me at a baseball game; conversations at the library that begin with an enthusiastic “What is up with all the crazy birds around?”; tales of red-breasted grosbeak and indigo buntings at feeders; and rumors of a yard that has hosted both summer and scarlet tanagers this season (two tanager yards in these parts are hard to come by in my experience). Just to name a few. I have seen none of these birds, but hearing about them is a way to get a taste of what’s happening!
In this biased nature observer’s opinion, however, spring bird migration is all about the warblers. And much to my pleasure, recent strolls along my favorite neighborhood routes have been turning out to be very warblery.
A favorite characteristic of the Wood-warblers (Family Parulidae) of northeastern North America is their diversity—and I’m not referring to an “old wooden ship” here. Over 25 species of warbler migrate through or nest in our area each spring, and with so many species it’s no surprise that warblers fill just about every conceivable niche in the woods.
They can be found in almost any habitat—marshes, riparian zones, fields and forests both hardwood or coniferous—with species ranging from specialists like the palm warbler, which breeds specifically in bogs, to the super adaptable varieties, such as the yellow-rumped warbler and their “whatever, wherever, whenever” nutritional strategy.
Parulidaes, magnolias, ovenbirds—oh my!
The parulidae is definitely one of the more aesthetically pleasing groups of birds. Variations in shades and arrangements of yellows, blues, blacks, greens and oranges result in an array of looks that add color and beauty to any yard, shrub, tree, or neighborhood.
One of my favorite warblers is the magnolia, with its brilliant, bright yellow chest with its dangling black necklace. It’s not uncommon to cross paths with magnolias in coniferous forests, such as along the Town Forest Loop trail off Kinney Woods Road. Years ago I received a yellow shirt painted with the male magnolia warbler’s wing and body patterns. One of the coolest presents ever! (Thanks, Amy!)
Warblers also bring a cacophony of song upon arrival each spring. The magnolia’s “weety, weety, weet-eo” being one song in a spectrum of sound, pitch, and subtleness that makes up the Eastern North America warbler chorus. If you ask me, warblers are what make spring mornings great, as each song is as distinctive as it is beautiful.
Take the northern parula’s song of “ohhhhhhhhhh, shoot!”—constructed as a rising note followed by an immediate drop—and a common song on the peninsula wherever old man’s beard lichen (usnea sp) can be found. Or the radiating yet pleasing “Teacher, teacher, teacher!” of the ovenbird. These are the songs that grab me, and inspire fist pumps and “oh yeahs” as if you’ve heard the voice of an old friend—one you haven’t seen for, say, a year.
While it’s always a good time to get outside, spring can be an especially exciting season with migration and avian hormones raging. And like I said, it is also important to share what you learn or what you see, for the greater good, but also for the selfish reasons I mentioned before. I already know what I know—let’s hear what you know. Everyone wins when we share!
A version of this story originally appeared in the St. George Dragon.