All the birding destinations I enjoy going to in the first three months of the year don’t have much to show for birds any more. Most of the Bald Eagles, gulls, and pelicans have moved from the riverfront, each to their own breeding areas. The non-resident raptors from along the highways have left.
The ponds and lakes are also disappointing. Spring migration used to bring thousands of shorebirds through here, but many years of work by the Corps of Engineers and others resulted in larger areas for corn and soybean — and habitat loss for shorebirds. Before the drainage systems, there were mudflats all along the floodplain, but they are mostly gone. In all the years I have been looking for good places to find shorebirds around here, I was only able to spot a few species, like the Short-billed Dowitchers I saw once. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have chosen a different route for their migration, just like many others.
Luckily, the five acres of mostly oak and hickory forest in my backyard is full of bird life at this time of the year. The resident birds are becoming more active. Most of them leave their winter groups and develop their own territories for raising young ones. I find it amazing how these birds have adapted to the different seasons, being able to survive the changing conditions. Some, like the House Sparrow and the Rock Pigeon, even found ways to take advantage of humans — they use our buildings for their nests.
No less fascinating are the migratory birds. They start to arrive in our woods at the end of April, and as I am learning more and more about them, I have come to appreciate their ability to make such huge trips in so little time. There are so many things that could go wrong!
They have to be able to predict the weather to some extent (better than I can), in order to avoid flying into a big storm. They have to stop and rest, and for that, they have to find safe locations with enough food. As for their destination, many warblers that come through here will have to find very specific habitats to breed. Young, thick jack pine forests of considerable size, or large openings containing clumps of shrubs, brushy lakeside communities. What if their forests or brushes disappear like the mudflats around here?
When I first started learning about birds, I focused on colors, size, field marks, flying patterns, essentially with one goal in mind: to stick a name to the bird. However, when I started to pay more attention to migrating birds, I have realized that I need to have at least a general idea of so much else to really understand birds. I would need to know more about meteorology, botany, entomology, geography — an endless list of things to discover!
May is a very exiting month around my house. Winter birds are moving out, summer residents are arriving, and some birds I see one morning might be far away by the next — these are the migrating birds that only stay a few days.
The big, soaring birds travel during the day. I was able to watch the pelicans arrive and leave on the riverfront or flying over my house on their way up north. The Turkey Vultures also arrive here during the day. “Flappy flyers,” on the other hand, fly at night here in the Mississippi flyway. If I go out in the early morning, just when the first rays of sunlight shine onto the leaves of the trees, I can find many birds that arrived overnight. It has taken me several springs of birding to know when to go and exactly where. I learned that one of my favorite groups of birds, the wood warblers, are very abundant here, I just have to be at the right place at the right time.
The best place to be in May is right behind the old, unused barn near my house. If I quietly walk through the barn, open the back door, and step out into the woods, it is like stepping into a new world. Among last year’s leaf litter, the mayapples are already blooming. The oak and hickory trees also have flowers and leaves. Lots of leaves.
I remember stepping out into the forest one morning. In the few days prior, it was very warm to the south of us, so I expected huge flocks of migrants to head north, right to our area. At first, I saw nothing but an immense mass of green plants around me and as far as I could see above. As I got used to my surroundings, so different from the mowed grass on the other side of the barn, I noticed some Wild Turkeys I had startled. The turkeys are here year round, but that doesn’t make it less exciting when I see them.
I knew not to wander too far into the forest, because most warblers prefer the edge of the woods, with bushes and lots of undergrowth. For example, I always find the few Ovenbirds that stop at our woods each year in one little patch of dense bramble just west of the barn. I checked the area, but the Ovenbirds were not there. I found a dry stump nearby, and settled in to watch the canopy.
I tried to make sense of the mass of green above. In a few minutes, I noticed movement here and there, but it was difficult to follow. The binoculars don’t help if I don’t know where to look. Finally, I spotted a small bird for a few seconds before it disappeared behind the leaves after the next caterpillar.
It was a Chestnut-sided Warbler, and I was very excited to see it for the first time. I knew it had to come through here. I had been studying their habitat preferences, their behavior, and I felt our woods could be the perfect place for them. I thought their bright head and contrasting colors would make it, if not easy, at least possible to spot them in the trees. But it took me years to find one. Once I saw this one, however, I could find many of them high up in the canopy, about twenty feet up, and as I expected, in the trees near the edge of the forest.
I like the variety of species I get to discover in May, and the challenge of finding them. By next month, however, these migrants will be gone, and for me, it’s time to start looking for breeding birds and young ones.
While May was all about finding birds by sight and movement, June forces me to use my ears. The birds around here are busy raising chicks, and it is in the parents’ best interest to move quickly, without being seen, in order to not reveal where their nest is. I’m not very good at identifying birds by sound, but over the years I've been paying more attention to the calls and songs around my house.
The males of some species sing throughout the summer. Some of the more common ones, like the Chipping Sparrows, Brown Thrashers, and Northern Bobwhites sing very often and can be heard all day. I know that there are quails on our property, and I also hear them at the apple orchard/conservation area where we help out with gardening. When I notice their song, I can whistle back to them, and they seem to respond. We can do this back and forth for several minutes, but I have never been able to actually see them, not when singing. Sometimes I do see quails fly off from the bushes when I walk around, but those are quiet before they take off — I wish I could find the ones who respond to my whistle.
On nice mornings in June, I often wake up when the Summer Tanager starts singing in the backyard. There is always one pair that nests near our house, and the male sings all summer from a dead ash tree on the edge of the woods. I was even able to take pictures of him, but I always find him by sound. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of the female, too, often in the young hickory behind the barn, but so far, I have never found their nest.
If I want to hear the Wood Thrush, I have to be outside at sunrise or near dusk, because they don’t sing all day. I like their song because it is very complex, and each individual has his own variation. Sometimes, if I pay close attention, I can hear three or four birds singing simultaneously.
I am excited to know some of these birds by sound, and I hope to learn more every summer. My goal is to be able to identify more birds, not only around my house, but in different places in the tristate area. It would be great to know more of them by call, too, not just by song.
About This Story
This story is the second part of an essay written by Zita Robertson (13) in 2021 as one of her submissions for the American Birding Association’s Young Birder Mentoring program. Zita lives in northeast Missouri, and when she’s not birding there, she goes on field trips just across the border in Iowa with the Iowa Young Birders.
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