It’s the end of the third week of May, and songbird migration is pretty well over this year, a week earlier than most Mays. It’s been a month of little rain and clear nights, weather conditions that encourage the birds just to keep moving north. In the Arboretum, I’m finding only resident warblers now: American redstarts and yellow warblers, common yellowthroats and pine warblers. All of these are singing on territories, territories I’m beginning to recognize. I can walk the trails and say with some confidence there will be a redstart singing its buzzy one-two-three-FOUR here, and I’ll see a yellow warbler there.
This morning I stopped to watch a great crested flycatcher attempting to claim a bluebird box as a nesting site. It hovered and circled and clung to the rough wood of the box, repeatedly trying to get its head in the too-small hole. Until that moment, I’d never stopped to think about how or where great crested flycatchers nest; they were just noisy birds of high treetops, easily recognizable by their rasping call. But they are, indeed, cavity nesters, and will use nest boxes if they are provided, according to Cornell University’s All About Birds website.
At the edge of a woodland – even in this blog I’m not going to be precise about the location of a raptor nest – I found a Cooper’s hawk nest a couple of weeks ago. Today I could see no adult on the nest, but through the loose weave of sticks, I could see a small shape moving. A fledgling, or a nest-robbing red squirrel or weasel? The nest is too high to tell; I will just have to keep watching. I met the female on a path one day last week, she whipping down between parallel rows of cedars in pursuit of a robin, I walking the other way. She did not veer, but simply changed altitude and flew directly over my head. I did not see the outcome of the chase.
Four songs dominate: in the woodlands, the persistent ‘look up, see me, here I am, see me’ of the red-eyed vireo; from the taller, woods’ edge trees, the ringing song of the Baltimore oriole. In the scrubby grasslands, the explosive ‘zee-er’ of the eastern kingbird completes with the ‘pres-pres-pres-presbyterian’ of the song sparrow. There are many other birds singing – but they are usually the orchestra to these four soloists, although the catbirds demand time for their improvised show too. A week or two ago I heard the ‘quick-three-beers’ of the olive-sided flycatcher – but it wasn’t quite right, slurred and the wrong pitch. Following the call, I realized it had been mixed up with another three or four songs – and found the catbird in a tangle, living up to its classification in Family Mimidae, the mimic thrushes.
The long trilling call of the chipping sparrow, which was perhaps the most common song I heard earlier in the month, has nearly ceased. I still see them, busy searching for food in short grass, but they now are feeding young, and very possibly not their own. Chipping sparrow nests are favoured by the parasitic brown-headed cowbird, and there are a lot of cowbirds here. While I’ve seen a cowbird chick being fed by a cardinal, I’ve not seen a chipping sparrow taking on that role, yet. I’ll be watching the areas favoured by chipping sparrows, as well as the yellow warbler areas (another preferred host) for this, over the next weeks.
I’ve noticed a shift in my own attitude, or maybe my expectations. I’m no longer thinking ‘what new bird will I see?’; instead, I’m wondering what new behaviour I’ll see, what song variant I can learn, what new nest will I find? And what was that delicate, black-and-white-winged insect that flew across my vision this morning – and what niche does it fill?
Featured image: By William H. Majoros (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons