For those who know how to look, spring is arriving rapidly on the tired wings of migrating birds. Mid-April is an inflection point in the migration curve – the pace will only quicken from here on out. I suggest that you take this time to go out and refresh your identification skills on the smaller set of early songbird migrants, because in terms of the number of species coming through, things will be out of hand in a few short weeks.
Numbers of the expected April migrants are now evident in places like the Beech Forest in Provincetown, which on Sunday was crawling with Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers and both Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. The first Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were also there and both Rough-winged and Barn Swallows were hawking insects over the ponds. These are the tough birds of early spring – they don’t even need leaves on the trees, just a few buds where they search for the very first of the spring caterpillars or ponds where they can snatch the earliest hatches of midges and flies.
As for all the other species, any April warm front can bring all kinds of early migrants to the region on an express-flight of warm air from Florida or Texas. Coastal areas tend to get the earliest of these scouts as the southwest winds push them up against the ocean and onto islands. Thanks to some of this warm southerly air late last week we’ve already seen the first Indigo Buntings in Orleans and Martha's Vineyard and a couple of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks on Nantucket – neither species is expected until early May.
Some migrants have such a short window that you could blink and miss them, like the big, striking Fox Sparrow. The Cape saw a pulse of these birds around the 10th and 11th, but they seem to have quickly moved on, heading toward their brushy breeding areas in the high altitudes and latitudes of subarctic Canada and Alaska. Which is too bad, because it means we miss out on one of the great songs in the bird world, one I have seldom heard in Massachusetts.
Many know the expected dates of arrival for some of the key indicator species of spring migration – Ruby-throated Hummingbirds toward the end of April, Baltimore Orioles around the beginning of May. But these are just general trends, and the truth is messier. At least a couple of orioles skipped the long flight to Costa Rica and have managed to overwinter at a feeder in Eastham, so those two are already here.
The very first of the hummingbirds arrive in Massachusetts in mid-April each year, and according to the hummingbird website hummingbirdcentral.com, one was reported from Centerville on Monday, the only report from Massachusetts so far. The average person shouldn’t expect any until in the last week of April, and many don’t see their first yard hummer until well into May – it depends on your neighborhood. The same goes for orioles, except they don’t usually show up until the last two or three days of April.
So if you want to get a leg up on the neighborhood bird feeder competition, I’d get your hummingbird feeder out now followed by your oriole feeder next week. Because, believe me, you don’t want to mess with a “hangry” hummingbird.