Highlights of Backyard Bird Secrets for Every Season by Sally Roth include features such as:
- comprehensive explanations of how seasonal changes like spring rains and winter winds affect bird habits and behaviors in the backyard
- hints and tips for attracting birds by offering what they need in each season, such as crushed eggshells when mother birds need extra calcium for egg-laying
- Snazziest Stars and Supporting Cast—which birds can be attracted in which seasons
- Cheat Sheets for Migration—when to expect various migratory visitors
- interesting insight into feeding routines, courtship and mating rituals, and nesting areas to create a hospitable habitat
- Build or Buy—quick-and-easy birding projects
As many as one in five Americans already consider themselves birders, and this spirited and fun guide will seduce many newcomers to bird watching's bountiful pleasures.
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Secrets for Spring
SPRING: A TIME OF TRANSITION
Long before the first daffodils trumpet the season, weeks before the vernal equinox that marks the start date of calendar-year spring, our yards are full of signs that the season has shifted. Early spring is all about anticipation, as anyone who's ever kept an eye on her daffodils knows. I watch for the swelling brown buds of pussy willows, growing fat before they burst out in sleek silver fur. I listen for the froggie chorus of spring peepers and watch for toads out and about on rainy nights. And I listen hard for the first love song from a chickadee--the two-note fee-bee that means a couple is courting. Watching for these early signs helps me enjoy the anticipation of the coming season, which brings so many fabulous birds to the foreground.
Once the changes of spring get underway, things happen fast--especially with the birds. Migration is the big news of the season, and the changeover from winter regulars to spring birds in our backyards makes us really sit up and take notice, as our old faithful friends are joined by a bunch of bright new characters.
In the bird world, spring runs mainly from February through April, with a few early birds showing spring changes as early as January and some latecomers spilling over into May. The actual dates will vary depending on where you live. Those 3 months will bring big changes in your backyard, with courtship and migration happening all around. In this section, you'll learn how to target your efforts toward the birds of this season and their springtime habits.
Birds on the Move
Migration is the headline news of spring. The cast of characters in our backyards shifts dramatically during this season. Instead of the same old faces day after day, we suddenly notice new friends at the feeder, new voices in the trees, and new colors in the yard as robins, wrens, tanagers, and other spring birds migrate north. Old winter reliables, like the juncos and white-throated sparrows that have added life to the backyard scene for the last several months, will be moving on, too.
Meanwhile, our year-round friends are shifting places, too. Many "year- round" birds do relocate with the seasons, though perhaps by only a few hundred miles or less, rather than by the thousands of miles that many migrant species put under their wings. The jays we've fed all winter may move on to nesting territories, while other jays move in to scout our yards for possibilities. It's the same with cardinals, goldfinches, and other birds we think of as year-round residents.
Changing Faces , Changing Places
My good old dog, Duke, has eaten pretty much the same thing, day after day, for all of his 14 years. Dry dog food can't be very exciting, but he doesn't complain. Still, just rustle the bag of treats or let him get a whiff of that cheese sandwich, and all of a sudden old lay-about Duke comes to life. With all 70-some £ds of his wriggling body, he lets me know that he's ready for something new. Oh boy! Excitement! Something different!
Migrating yellow-rumped wood warblers may turn up just about anywhere-- including at your nectar feeder!
spring secret That blue jay you're feeding in December may not be the same individual that visits in spring. "Year-round resident" is more accurate as a description of a species, not of a particular bird.
That's how I feel, too, when spring arrives. While I love my winter birds-- what a gray day it would be without chickadees to brighten breakfast time-- the anticipation of what spring has in store makes me start to wriggle, too.
Spring, to me, is all about the old adage for brides: Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. Since anticipation is the best thing about spring, let's start by taking a look at that "something new" first.
"Let's go on vacation for a couple of weeks this April," a friend suggested many years ago. We'd go to fabulous places, see exotic things, eat unusual food, have a ball.
"Sounds great," I told him, "but no thanks. That's when the warblers are coming through."
Warblers? Birds? How could I say no to an exciting trip to stay home and watch birds?
Talk about excitement. Foreign places can't compare to the thrill of migration, as far as I'm concerned.
Watching for the first robin is still a big deal to lots of us. But that's just the start.
Vivid indigo buntings often drop in at feeders during migration, before they move on to nesting territories.
spring secret Bone up before the birds arrive. Review a field guide (may I recommend The Backyard Bird Lover's Field Guide, by yours truly--see Sources, on page 320, for info) so you have an idea of who's who before the real thing arrives.
Does "scarlet tanager" make your little heart go pit-a-pat? How about the thought of a rose-breasted grosbeak in full tricolor glory? An indigo bunting? A dozen indigo buntings? A dozen lazuli buntings? A hundred goldfinches? Now we're talking. And let's not forget those wondrous wood warblers--dozens of tiny mites traveling through the trees.
After a winter of mainly gray and brown birds, with a dash of jays and maybe a sprinkling of cardinals, the cheerful color of spring birds is a delight worth staying home for. Many of these orange, red, green, or blue beauties are, sad to say, only temporary pleasures. Their visits last from a few days to a few weeks, either because they're just passing through or because they will soon be moving away from our yards and feeders and back to their natural nesting and feeding grounds. Since I never know how long any of these visitors might stay, I spend a lot of time looking at my feeders when the season shifts.
spring secret Technology has provided you with some bird-watching aids that old-timers (like me) didn't have. Try the bird ID cards with embedded microchips that play a snatch of birdsong (such as the "Identiflyer"; you'll find sources on page 320), or download audio files to your MP3 player or cell phone, if it's capable of playing them, for quick access in the field. You'll find a sampling of Web sites with recordings in the Sources section on page 320, or you can do a search for them on your computer. Or do what I do, and follow your ears to the singer.
Just as Duke hurries to see what goodies are in my hand, I rush to the feeder window on spring mornings to see who's new. Then it's a quick glance around the yard to check for surprises under the bushes or in the trees. Finally, it's time to get dressed, start the coffee, and go outside to fill the feeders with treats that will tempt any birds that might be flying by. My feeder menu changes in spring, along with the cast of characters, because I want to make sure I have something that will please them all. (You'll find tips on spring feeding, so you can do the same, in Chapter 3.)
The high point for most of us bird lovers is not birds in the bush, but birds at our feeders. What a thrill to spot a flash of sapphire from the first indigo bunting, or the flaming red of a tanager. Even those sunflower hogs, the evening grosbeaks, are a welcome treat in spring.
Here's a sampling of the newbies you might see at your feeder in spring-- and you could add others to the list, since even birds that were previously standoffish about visiting feeders seem to be getting more used to the idea of investigating them. Check a comprehensive field guide, such as The Sibley Guide to Birds (see Sources on page 320) to see which ones have a possibility of passing through or alighting in your area.
Male birds, like this Audubon's warbler, migrate first, with the duller females following a week or two later.
All of that excitement over the new and different means that some old reliable friends of ours barely get a second thought at this time of year. Yet they, too, deserve some special notice, because this may be the last chance we get to enjoy their company until next fall. Depending on where you live, you may lose your juncos, your white-throated sparrows, and even your chickadees when they depart for nesting season elsewhere. For those birds, spring is the time for us to say "Good-bye, good luck, see you next year."
The only trouble is, it usually takes a few days before we even notice they're gone. Seems like every April, for years, I'd be looking out the window at the feeders when it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn't seen a junco in a while. When did they go? I hadn't been paying attention. Suddenly, I'd miss those juncos and sparrows I had taken for granted until they were gone.
Rose-Identiflyer Identiflyer Now they're a regular springtime treat.
* Indigo buntings
* Lazuli buntings
* Goldfinches, including American and lesser
* Grosbeaks, including rose-breasted, evening, and western
* Orioles, including Baltimore and Bullock's, at nectar and fruit feeders
* Tanagers, especially scarlet
* Wood warblers, including Cape May, yellow-rumped, and black-and-white
* Brewer's blackbird
* Red-winged blackbird
* Rusty blackbird
* Robin (more often at birdbath, rather than feeder)
* Sparrows, including chipping, tree, and field
* Brown thrasher
* House wren
A Vision in Red
Is there a redder red bird than the male scarlet tanager? Only the male cardinal comes close, but the tanager's color is even richer, and his black wings and tail add extra zing.
Scarlet tanagers are real standouts when they deign to drop in at a feeding station, which I think they've been doing more often in recent years. Look for this beauty in later spring, when oak leaves are that beautiful spring green color. Other tanager species may also visit feeders on occasion in spring, depending on where you live.
Don't expect crowds: A single male may be all you get. It's enough.
Keeping Track of Changes
After a few decades of that "Huh? Where'd they go?" approach, I finally learned a little trick that gives me time to say good-bye--or to get out the welcome mat when it's time for new arrivals. You'll find details in "Red-Letter Days," below.
Even our year-round birds undergo a change of habits in spring. Once the hormones that govern courtship and nesting kick in, you'll notice that jays, cardinals, and other old faithfuls begin to dwindle. Instead of 10 cardinals cracking sunflowers at your tray, you may have only a single pair- -those that have claimed your yard as their territory for the nesting season.
Red-Let ter Days
I'm worthless at keeping a journal of migration notes, but I've found that I can be at least somewhat disciplined about jotting entries on a calendar for quick reference. A big advantage of that system is that I can see at a glance who will soon be coming or going.
Around Christmastime, when I buy a new calendar for the upcoming year, I set aside an evening to look ahead. On those still-blank pages, unmarked by doctor appointments and other reminders, I make the important notes (with a red pen, so they don't get lost in the shuffle) of when to expect new bird arrivals and when to start getting ready to say good-bye to juncos and other old friends.
How do I know what dates to write down? Well, some of that is from my own unorganized record-keeping over the years. If I'm lucky, last year's calendar will hold at least some scribbled notes: "Juncos still here," say, on an April date, or, a couple of weeks later, "First indigo bunting at feeder." So I start by transferring those notes to the same dates on the new calendar, with variations: "Check juncos," and "Watch for indigo buntings."
To really fill in the gaps, I depend on my local chapter of the Audubon Society. Many chapters keep records of first-sighting dates and sometimes of departures, too. (And if your chapter doesn't, why not suggest it at the next meeting? It's a great way to get members more involved.) If you have a nearby nature center, they may have some migration-date records, too.
Make a Date with Spring Birds
Here's a quick cheat sheet for spring migration, with common species arranged in approximately the order in which they arrive or depart, from earliest to latest. Use this to get a general idea of comings and goings; the actual dates (and the species you see) will vary with where you live. I jotted these dates down for my backyard birds in southern Indiana; they match pretty well with the birds I hosted in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
ARRIVALS Grackles, blackbirds February-March Phoebes March Robin March Meadowlark Late March-April Swallows, purple martin April Swallows, purple martin April House wren April Wood warblers April-May Indigo bunting Late April-May Vireos Late April-May Thrushes May Orioles May Rose-breasted grosbeak May DEPARTURES Tree sparrow Late March Fox sparrow Mid-April Slate-colored junco Late April White-throated sparrow May Pine siskin May
On my bookshelves are some old volumes that include similar info for the regions those books cover. I like to compare that information with my calendar, once I have my notes down. The dates may not exactly match up with my area, but the seasonal time frame is pretty close, and the order of migrating species is still right on the money. I've included a shortened version here, covering some popular backyard birds, so you can set your own appointments with the birds of spring.
Spring brings its share of surprising weather--cold snaps when we least expect them (cover those tomato plants!), snow that buries the daffodils, ice storms that crack branches.
We hate to see birds having a hard time. And it's frustrating to try to keep feeders cleared during a sudden snow, or to slip and slide out there after an ice storm.
When bad weather hits, an easy source of food--whether it's lingering rose hips on your hedge or feeders brimming with seed and suet--is an instant attraction for any birds in the area.
When a late snow buries the daffodils, you can bet that hungry migrants will soon swarm the feeder.
spring secret Snap a picture or do a quick sketch when you spot an unfamiliar bird. The bird may not linger, but you'll have valuable clues to examine later, wen you try to figure out who it was.
And some of those birds can really surprise you.
These are the "something borrowed" birds, the ones that don't typically visit feeders or that rarely show up in a particular area.
Lost in the Storm