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In This Place

May Arrivals Are Here and They Are Hungry

astro/nature guy / flickr /

If you’re like me, you had a lot of neighbors return over the weekend, and they don’t appear to be self-quarantining. Weirdly upbeat in these difficult times, these newly arrived locals can be heard whistling cheerful tunes as they settle back in to their routines in yards and gardens. Many are even visiting crowded food establishments and communal baths of suspect sanitary status. Obviously I am talking about your local orioles, catbirds, and hummingbirds, and they got here not a minute too soon in these stir-crazy times.

The proverbial floodgates have opened, right on schedule. For me it went like this: Thursday, April 30, I had my first yard towhee, a splendid male scratching in the leaf litter just outside my bedroom window. Towhees had been around the Cape for a while, since mid-April, but not yet in the immediate vicinity of my yard, which is what really counts. My first hummingbird arrived on Saturday – a male, as always, making a very brief appearance at a feeder. This is of course one of the most anticipated spring milestones for the suburban backyard birder. On Sunday I heard my first Ovenbird, the loud but seldom seen voice of the pine-oak woods. There they construct a charming little domed nest under a carpet of old leaves on the forest floor.

Monday brought several more new arrivals – Baltimore Oriole, a searingly orange male first heard whistling in a neighbor’s trees, then suddenly seen splashing in my bird bath. Next, a singing House Wren – maybe he would use the nest box that my commitment-phobic titmice have been repeatedly visiting but rejecting. Then, the familiar jumbled, complex song of a Gray Catbird, likely just back from Central America. Tuesday brought a Great-crested Flycatcher, his strident calls reminding me that I never got around to building a box for them. The neighbors that typically hosted them moved and took the box with them, presenting an opportunity for me to snag them that I hope I haven’t squandered.

Tallying first sightings is a time-honored tradition, but beyond just checking them off and noting the date, these new arrivals present opportunities for backyard nature study not possible only a week ago. For example, I had the chance to sit at length and watch a Northern Parula, a common and handsome migrant warbler, as it foraged in a Norway Maple in my front yard. This nonnative invasive tree came with the house – it’s been on my list to replace it with a native tree, like a nice birch.

Knowing this alien tree likely supported few caterpillars, I was curious what the warbler would find. In 10 minutes of watching, I never saw the bird catch a single caterpillar, the targeted prey of most songbirds right now, or insect of any kind. Every probe into the flowers and buds came up empty. Like many invasives, these trees bloom and leaf out earlier than native trees. So the warbler can’t resist, drawn in by all the green, and wastes valuable fattening up time in this empty larder of a tree.

In a native willow or red maple, both of which support orders of magnitude more insects, studies show warblers should be able to catch close to 30 caterpillars in 10 minutes. In a heavier winter moth year, maybe he would have done better in that Norway Maple, but that moth is also an alien invader, and the point remains that native trees support more native insects, and hence way more birds.

So as the familiar birds return to your neighborhood, spend some time watching them and thinking about what it is they need to survive migration and breed successfully. But don’t think too hard, because it’s not complicated – they need bugs. Lots of bugs. So look around at your landscape trees and shrubs and ask yourself what the orioles, flycatchers, and warblers will be asking this migration and breeding season – got bugs?

This piece first aired in May, 2020.