After that nasty winter that carried on far too long, making early spring dismal as well, it is finally time to respond to my friend Barbara’s request for some good news.
Good news indeed. One thing about climbing out of a winter like that: It makes late April and early May a wonderful time here in the Niagara Region.
Glorious days are ahead; the two dozen species of warblers, including the lovely Cape May, are coming. And these colorful little migrants are bringing with them kinglets, vireos, sparrows, flycatchers, swallows, thrushes, wrens, buntings, tanagers, finches, orioles, meadowlarks and bobolinks – about 100 species of our summer birds of neighborhood and forest. Even if the weather stays cold and dreary, the inherited pressure to migrate will bring back these birds.
Already the woods are full of golden-crowned kinglets and brown creepers, their high-pitched voices now beyond my hearing range. Before this column is published, ruby-crowned kinglets will replace the golden-crowned and their bubbling calls will lead us to flocks of these small birds. If you are fortunate, you can sometimes find another member of this clan: blue-gray gnatcatchers. They, too, are an early migrant but are far less common than the kinglets and chickadees and titmice they occasionally join.
The swallows and purple martins are all here. And the woods are full of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, those specialized woodpeckers that drill a ring of holes around a tree trunk and return later to savor the sap draining from them. Later, hummingbirds will also feed at those sap sources.
You have to look with care to find the earliest brown thrush: the hermit thrush. When you do catch sight of one, usually on the ground, it is best identified by its reddish tail. Unfortunately, this species rarely sings in this region; its beautiful organ-like song is one of the real treats offered by our northern forests.
But winter wrens do sing. Listen for their lovely notes. Their volume and number are remarkable, especially coming from another of our tiniest birds. Soon the more monotonous chatter of the house wren will be more often heard. Its noisy calls will continue through the summer, whereas the winter wren will move farther north or into deeper forests.
Listen in open fields for the whistles of meadowlarks and the chattering of bobolinks, the buzzing song of the savannah sparrow, the increasing tempo of the field sparrow’s piping and from high overhead the hoohoohoo sound made by snipe wings.
Two warblers have already arrived. Pine warblers are chipping from the top of evergreens, their songs difficult for me to differentiate from not only chipping sparrows but also juncos. All three are to be found in similar locales. The other early warbler migrant is the Louisiana waterthrush. To find them, you usually must visit deeply shaded shale-sided glens like those of Chestnut Ridge Park. But these species will soon be followed by troops of yellow-rumped warblers, with a few palm warblers mixed in.
Yes, there are many species here already, but the real gang will arrive in the coming weeks.
Years ago, as a beginning birder, I wondered when was the most exciting time for this activity. I derived from the records of the Genesee Ornithological Society in Rochester a paper titled, “The Pattern of Bird Arrival.” The key feature of my presentation was a graph indicating the number of species to be found in that area at any time of the year. I used the slope of the line that graph produced to represent “bird arrival,” and the steepest slope occurred during the last weeks of April and the first week of May. So here we are at exactly that time: the best for birding.
Some of you readers are thinking: those birds may be returning but I never see them. Others among you cannot identify the ones you do see. A suggestion to both groups: go on any morning in the next two weeks when it is not raining to Mirror Lake at Forest Lawn or to Tifft Nature Preserve and you should find many experienced birders who will be happy to point out some of these colorful species. You just have to ask what they are seeing.