A Winged Pavarotti

Twenty-seven years ago, a friend asked me this question. “What would you say if I asked you to go to Cape May, New Jersey and catch birds”? My mind still creates a humorous picture of myself in a Looney Tunes cartoon close behind Tweedy Bird, with salt shaker in hand. “Of course”, I said. “Isn’t that what most people do on a weekend, in New Jersey”? To this day, I am thankful I went and haven’t missed a fall migration since.

Fall migration brings young and old alike coursing south like a river of birds following mountains and coastline, with “hard wired” determination that allows room for little else. This annual pilgrimage is as predictable as the location of a particular constellation in our heavens, the ebb and flow of the ocean’s tides or my presence in front of the television on Sunday to watch the crowning of this years Master’s Champion.

The adult birds, or those 2 years and older, have already passed the difficult test of migration, but for the first year birds, or “passage” migrants, this will be the most arduous and life threatening journey of their short and difficult existence. As incredible as it may seem, fewer than half the birds that travel south in the fall will ever see their northern territories again. Due to inexperience, harsh environments, necessary predation and man, the majority of birds hatched will live less than one year. Sound astonishing? How many birds are born to one pair of adults, each year? Some, as many as 10 and most have, “clutches” or groups of young, that have more that one youngster. Think that’s a survival trait? Good possibility. So even though there are less birds in spring than in fall, look out, get ready, stand by, grab your binos and bird guide because those flying wonders just arrived in your backyard and are dressed for the ball!

Together, birds and weather create our beautiful spring season. Birds return from their winter haunts ready to trip the light fantastic with spectacles of acrobatic flight and songs that would electrify Pavarotti. And… until you have seen an adult male Scarlet Tanager, Baltimore oriole, Yellow or hooded warbler, you haven’t lived, and they all live right there with you in South Riding!

So what can we expect to see this spring in the land of South Riding. The first thing to recognize is habitat. What habitat do you see around your neighborhood? Open woodlands, upland meadows, or riparian strips, to name a few. Don’t forget your own back yards. Attracting birds with food is a good winter practice, but once the weather warms they rely more upon perching or loafing habitat and most importantly, water. Backyard pools and ponds of any size are magnets for migrating birds. There is rarely a moment during morning and evening that my pond does not hold some kind of migrant visitor. Last year, two of our star visitors were blackburnian and black-and-white warblers. What a treat!

You will always see our old stand bys such as titmice, chickadees, cardinals, wrens and various finches, but there are always the extra little surprises. I have already seen thrushes, hermit thrush I believe, but have not yet heard the flutelike solo of the wood thrush, the real harbinger of summer. Flocks of cedar waxwings, ruby and golden-crowned kinglets, goldfinches and pine siskins, and brown thrashers will visit our cedar hedge rows for cover and food. The preservation of these cedar hedgerows and “Tree Preservation Areas” play a critical part in South Riding’s habitat. Our large deciduous forests provide homes for scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, blue-gray gnatcatchers, thrushes and of course raptors, (birds of prey), such as red-tailed, red-shouldered, cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks. Don’t forget our check open fields for Eastern meadowlark, indigo bunting, and sparrow hawks, or little falcons also known as kestrels.

Above are only a smattering of the myriad species that will come through South Riding this spring and summer. Be sure to look into those wet, boggy areas covered with tangled thickets. Colorful warblers will use these areas in early morning and will fill your binoculars with every color of the rainbow. Old fence lines will hold mockingbirds, towhees, fox sparrows and of course, everyone’s favorite, our Eastern bluebird.

Well, I’ll stop talking so you can start watching. How many species can you see in a spring? There are probably 20-30 species of warblers alone, if that’s any clue. Go out early in the morning with your binoculars and a good bird guide. I like The Birds of North America, by Chandler Robbins, National Geographic’s Field Guide To Birds Of North America, and of course, Peterson’s Field Guide To Birds. All are excellent and easy to use, but there is one more thing. Whether you can recognize and name the bird is not the issue. It’s not how many birds you have seen it is the fact that you have gone into their world and shared in what they have to offer. As I sit here and end this story, the morning air is filled with red-winged blackbirds in courtship song, the buzzing chipping sparrows, and bluebirds warbling in the front yard. Take time this spring, take time to stop, look, and listen. Happy Birding!!

Copyright 2005 by Peter Deahl. All rights reserved.

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