You look out the window and there is a flash of orange. The reddest of reds and the yellowest of yellows. LBJs – that’s shorthand for ‘little brown jobs” – by the boatload. And so many songs.
It is time for the spring migration at our bird feeder. And you never know what the day will bring.
We are the most modest of birders. That means that Patty and I have binoculars and a half-dozen bird books. We sometimes view the estimable videos posted on YouTube by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (Yes! Go look at them!) I have been known to listen to online bird calls.
We do not pretend to be very good at this. If you are an above-average birder, you can spot warblers – more on them in a moment – in a dense thicket. You can identify hawks on the wing and know varieties of flycatchers by their songs. Sorry, we’re just not there.
Every so often we tramp through the woods to see who is in the vicinity. More often than not, we don’t see anything. That is part of being a birder. But when you see something new, it can take your breath away.
Last weekend we drove to a Lake Michigan bird sanctuary located, oddly enough, next to the Hammond casino. There was a nice enough feeder area filled with the usual suspects – goldfinches, blue jays, sparrows, chickadees, mourning doves and other common varieties that are frequent guests at our backyard feeder.
We headed north on the lakefront path and within minutes, were knee-deep into the greatest half hour of our modest birding career.
This is where I get to tell you about warblers.
There are, as best as I can tell, more than 70 varieties of warblers. They are all tiny – about five inches long. Many have yellow highlights. They move so quickly that it is often hard to get a good look at them.
Most warblers are just passing through during the spring migration. They spend the winters in exotic places – Venezuela, Costa Rica, Cuba, Bermuda – and are headed to the Canadian woods.
But there they were on the lakefront path, at least three kinds of warblers. One at the top of a tree, gloriously yellow from head to toe. A Yellow Warbler. (Sometimes it’s easy.) And then there were the others. One had a flash of yellow on its tail, a black face and a white throat. The other had a reddish cap, a yellow chest with a gray stomach. I got as close as I could – maybe 15 feet away – and took pictures of them.
All the time, Patty and I were going back and forth with, “Did you see that eye ring?” And, “How about those red stripes on the chest?” And “What are they?” It was a little exhausting. After a little while we were glad to just walk and not look at birds.
Back home, I looked at the pictures I had taken. And – ta-da – we were able to ID the other two warblers. The guy with the yellow tail, black face and white throat was a Yellow Rumped or “Myrtle” Warbler. The bird with the reddish cap was a Palm Warbler.
It’s much easier to watch birds from our kitchen window. We have cardinals and finches the year round, along with a lot of common seasonal birds. Some sparrows and nuthatches are just passing through and, of course, we get plenty of robins in the warm weather months.
This week, the Rose Breasted Grosbeaks returned. They are wonderful birds, related to cardinals and well-behaved at the feeder. The males are black and white with a triangular patch of red on their throat. The females are fearsome-looking; they are brown with whitish stripes and appear to have arrived straight from the dinosaur age. As their name indicates, they have very large beaks, perfect for cracking open sunflower seeds. They arrived in a pack this week, with three males and three females taking up temporary residence on their way north.
A big group of Pine Siskins also arrived at the feeder. They are tiny but apparently fearless; they seem smaller than American Goldfinches, to whom they are distantly related. Siskins are mostly LBJs but have a distinctive patch of yellow on their wings. It’s a nice touch.
A Baltimore Oriole also made a short appearance this week. Every year at least one stops by to provide a brief flash of orange. They arrive out of nowhere to eat some suet or peck at a piece of orange. Then, just as quickly, they are back in the sky, and gone.