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Backyard bird watching at its best

Hooded Warbler
Ryan Schain
Hooded Warbler

I finally have a little time to watch birds each day, and it’s all thanks to the Monomoy School District. Between my kindergarten-aged son’s absurdly early bus time of 6:52 AM and the time we have to get my daughter up for pre-school, I have one deliciously unstructured hour. While I have dedicated part of that time to my first regular exercise in about 7 years, which involves a short run where I gasp desperately like a beached fish, I use some of this time each weekday for watching birds in my neighborhood.

“Don’t you do that anyway, Bird Guy?”, you are probably asking. Well, yes, I’m always at least sort of watching and listening for birds. But in this case I mean really watching them, like standing still for half an hour while they go about their business around me. Doing this several mornings in a row gives me a more intimate portrait of how “my” neighborhood birds live, as well as a chance to find unusual transients at this, the peak of fall migration.

At a certain point each morning the sun hits a bank of trees along the edge of the small local powerline cut in my neighborhood. Especially in fall and winter, sunny edges between two habitat types are among the best places to see birds, especially if it’s the first place to catch the sun’s warmth. Each morning the same flock of a dozen goldfinches is present feeding on evening primrose seedpods, which is maybe their favorite local food. Several are still begging young, typical for this latest of our breeding birds.

The same three catbirds stay low in the “all you can eat” pokeweed thicket until the sun hits the trees, then they emerge to bask a bit. With so much pokeweed, which is one of their favorite foods, they don’t have to go far to fatten up for migration. The fact that they can just sit and gorge out of view of passing hawks outweighs the low-fat content of pokeweed fruits relative to some other native species.

One morning, some calling bluebirds circled high but never landed. Another day, a phoebe followed me and my son to the bus stop. Each morning last week I saw at least one hummingbird go zipping by, nowhere near a feeder. Some migrants were around for a few days, including a Blackpoll Warbler bound for Brazil, plus a couple of American Redstarts and Red-eyed Vireos, two of our more common transient songbirds in fall. Also, less common species like a Warbling Vireo and an elusive bird that was probably a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. I wouldn’t have seen any of them if I didn’t have that early standing date with the bus stop.

It occurs to me that you may want to hear about places other than my yard. Elsewhere, unusual warblers have defined the week. As I watched some chickadees I had called in on some obscure and quiet conservation land in East Orleans one morning, I glanced to my right to find a stunning male Hooded Warbler eyeing me. I fumbled with my camera as this is a rare species in any season, especially fall, but only managed a hopelessly blurred shot as it dove back into the thicket.

Another Hooded Warbler was banded on Monomoy, and at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary, the banding team found sexy species like a Worm-eating Warbler and, even better, a male of the rapidly declining Golden-winged Warbler, a species that recently blinked out as a breeding bird in Massachusetts. Some visitors described seeing a Kentucky Warbler, a southern species with very few fall records in Massachusetts.

If you can, I recommend finding some time in the week to just be still somewhere watching birds. Not at your feeders, I mean somewhere you can see how they really use the landscape, like a sunny, weedy edge. Just not in my neighborhood – my birdwatching spot isn’t big enough for the both of us. Plus, I don’t want anyone with cameras around when I’m struggling through my morning run.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.