April in NW Ohio

Life has been pretty busy for me lately, as evidenced by my lack of posts here on the blog. I’m sort of frustrated that I’m losing touch with some of my regular readers because I just don’t have time to keep up with anything outside of work anymore. But I’m really hoping to get back to writing more after the Biggest Week in American Birding isn’t absorbing all of my time. At BSBO we’re burning the candle at both ends these days, attending to all the details that make this festival so successful. It’s a lot of exhausting work, but the carrot at the end of the stick is the joyful ten days next month when our birding friends from across the country will gather here on the shores of Lake Erie to celebrate the spring migration. This is very satisfying work, and even when I’m drop-dead exhausted, I’m so thankful to be where I am, doing what I’m doing. 🙂

But what I wanted to write about now is the wonderful afternoon I just had. We had a very mild winter here in northwest Ohio, with only a couple snowfalls of about two inches at a time. But last night we got whopped with more than seven inches of heavy, wet April snow. I wasn’t liking it very much when I got caught driving home in the worst of it last night, but this morning everything was so beautiful. Here are a couple pictures from my backyard:

Seven inches of snow on patio April 9 2016 (800x533)

Snow in backyard April 9 2016 (800x533)

After my driveway was plowed at lunchtime, I decided to go run a couple errands. My intention was to be back home in less than an hour, so I didn’t take my camera (…cue dramatic music that tells you that was a BIG mistake…).

As I ran my errands I noticed how pretty the tree-lined streets were around this little town, and I took a few cell phone pictures. Then I impulsively decided to drive over to Spiegel Grove, the home of President Rutherford B. Hayes, to take a quick walk around their lovely grounds. It’s a pretty place very close to my home, and I’d like to visit there more often. And I knew my cell phone camera would be fine for taking some pictures of the huge snow-covered trees.

Hayes Memorial - April snow v1.jpg

As soon as I stepped out of my car I heard a flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets in the evergreens beside the parking lot. I quickly counted at least a dozen of them, and stood there watching them for a few minutes. There were also a couple Eastern Phoebes in that spot. I was already kicking myself for leaving home with out my camera. But it seems that I get the best views of birds when I don’t have my camera, so I decided to just enjoy the birds and make mental images. (I’m sharing a couple bird pics from previous years, just so you can see which species I’m talking about.)

Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Phoebe
Golden-crowned Kinglet - best crop (800x541)
Golden-crowned Kinglet

I loved this tunnel of trees, even though it was a bit treacherous when huge clumps of heavy snow came crashing down near me several times.

Hayes Memorial - April snow v5.jpg

And halfway down this tunnel of trees, I looked off to my left and saw a female Cooper’s Hawk just sitting calmly in a tree, surveying the area below her. There were a couple phoebes flitting around here too, and I wondered if one of them would become her next meal. Later, when I returned along this same path, a male Cooper’s had joined her on the branch. I was happy that I was able to share those birds with a woman who happened along just about then with her dog. I pointed out the hawks and let her use my binoculars to get a good view of them. And then we had a nice chat about a variety of things, including small town living and the process of adjusting to life after divorce. She gave me some tips on places to go and things to do, which I appreciated. It was really nice to meet someone who could relate to some of the things I’ve gone through in the past couple of years.

I continued walking…

Hayes Memorial - April snow v3

…and just around a bend I saw a woodpecker fly into a tree beside me. I stopped and lifted my binoculars, expecting to see a Downy Woodpecker. But what I saw was even better because it’s a bird I’ve only found once before: a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. It’s not that uncommon really, but I think it’s a really cool bird. It’s easy to mistake for a Downy or Hairy Woodpecker if you don’t look closely enough, but it’s got that bright red throat patch that gives it away, and the yellowish tint to the belly area too (thus the name). I stood there smiling from ear to ear, wishing there’d been someone with me to share this bird with. But it’ll just have to remain “my” bird for now. And that’s okay. (Sorry I don’t have any good pictures of sapsuckers, but you can find lots of them on the Google-machine.)

Hayes Memorial - April snow v6
Looking skyward….

I took a short video as I walked through that tunnel of trees earlier. It’s a little jiggly while I’m walking at the beginning, but I wanted you to hear the crunching of the snow under my feet.

Isn’t that pretty? I wish all of you could have been there to experience this quiet moment in time.

Intimacy in the Parking Lot

Killdeer in gravel parking lot
Killdeer in gravel parking lot

I got home yesterday afternoon and am probably going to need a couple days to recuperate from all the excitement at the Biggest Week in American Birding. This year’s festival was the best yet, and I have lots of photos to share with you all. But for today I just have a sequence from an intimate moment in the lives of two Killdeer.

Near Magee Marsh, there’s an ice cream shop with a big gravel parking lot in which Killdeer often dig their little “rock nests.” Early in the week I had a great time watching some recently-hatched babies running around the edges of this lot under the watchful eyes of their parents.

Little puffballs -- Recently-hatched Killdeer babies running around!
Little puffballs — Recently-hatched Killdeer babies running around!

Unfortunately, nesting in parking lots has its hazards, and I saw one of the parents of this brood get run over by a car just a few minutes after this photo was taken. It brought me to tears. These birds aren’t always noticeable, and I imagine many of them lose their lives like this. I think all four of the babies ran to safety though. I didn’t see them anywhere in the area in the days following that, so have convinced myself they’re okay with the remaining  parent.

My last day in Ohio was really hot, so I stopped back over there to get an ice cream cone. As I sat in my car eating it, I noticed two adult Killdeer sitting on the edge of the lot, about two feet apart. Occasionally one of them, presumably the female, got up and worked on a little indentation she was forming in the gravel. She would pull a rock to the side and then squat down in it and wiggle around, using her body to shape it better.

Using her body to shape the nest.
Using her body to shape the nest, or maybe also trying to attract the male?

After watching them for a few minutes and seeing them settle down again, I laid my car seat back and closed my eyes for a short nap. But a short time later I heard them making some agitated noises, so sat up and got to see this:

Hmm, what's going on here? Need a closer look....
Hmm, what’s going on here? Need a closer look….

Balancing act, trying to find the right position…

Killdeer mating sequence 4

Ah, I think they’ve got it now…

Killdeer mating sequence 6

Killdeer mating sequence 7

And the slightly-ungraceful dismount:

Killdeer mating sequence dismount

Nobody saw that, right?

Okay, back to your business, nothing to see here.
Okay, back to your business, nothing to see here.

So if all goes well there will be more little puffballs running around that parking lot soon! Next time I plan to show you the rest of the photo series of that Great Blue Heron eating a fish (see the preview in my previous post). And, of course, there will be warbler photos…stay tuned!

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid

Great Blue Heron with big fish in mouth - part of series w sig
I’m seeing lots of amazing things at the Biggest Week in American Birding, but can only show you this for now. I took a series of photos of this Great Blue Heron as he caught and ate a huge fish. I’ll post the entire series later, but thought this particular shot was so interesting because of the proximity of the eyes of both predator and prey.

Three days into the festival and seven more to go. It’s already exhausting, but it will all be over far too soon!

I’ve Got Swamp Fever

Metzger Marsh
Metzger Marsh

In the early 1800s, a large part of northwestern Ohio was an impenetrable swamp, inhabited only by a small number of Indians and a few hardy settlers. Somewhere along the way this 12-county area became known as the Great Black Swamp, known for its mosquitoes and a dreaded summertime disease called swamp fever. By mid-century it had mostly been drained and turned into farmland though, and all that remains of it now are the marshes of Lucas and Ottawa counties: Magee Marsh, Metzger Marsh, and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.

If the Great Black Swamp was still in existence today it probably would be a nature preserve and wildlife refuge similar to the Everglades in Florida. (– Jim Mollenkopf, in his book The Great Black Swamp)

Yellow Warbler at Magee Marsh on May 2, 2015
Yellow Warbler at Magee Marsh on May 2, 2015

Thankfully, I’ve got the 21st century form of swamp fever. The primary symptom is an insatiable desire to roam the marshes, woodlands, and meadows, watching hundreds of species of birds migrating through. The fever also causes a person to become blinded to virtually everything else for weeks at a time: household chores are ignored, as are friends and family–unless those friends and family are also afflicted with the fever. Everyone knows the fever is much more fun when you can share it with others.

Those who suffer from the modern version of swamp fever recognize fellow sufferers by their attire, which looks like this:

My t-shirts for the 2015 Biggest Week in American Birding!
My t-shirts for the 2015 Biggest Week in American Birding!

I’m actually deliriously happy to have this particular affliction. I just wish it could last a while longer.

Great Egret hunting in the marsh
Great Egret hunting in the marsh

The photos shared here were taken in the marshes of northwest Ohio in the past couple of weeks. On Friday I’ll be heading back down there for 10 glorious days in the “Warbler Capital of the World.” I’ll be doing some volunteer work for the Biggest Week in American Birding, catching up with friends from across the country, and trying to see as many beautiful birds as I can in this all-too-brief period of time.

All aboard the BSBO birding express!
All aboard the BSBO birding express!

Did you notice my cute little BSBO hat? (BSBO stands for Black Swamp Bird Observatory — aren’t you glad you know where their name came from now?) I usually hate wearing hats, so I was thrilled to find this new style in their gift shop yesterday. I think it looks like a conductor’s hat instead of a baseball cap. And within 15 minutes of putting it on, a total stranger yelled across the parking lot at Magee Marsh to tell me he liked my hat…proof that it’s a keeper.

Double-crested Cormorant at Magee Marsh
Double-crested Cormorant at Magee Marsh
Palm Warbler at Magee Marsh, May 2, 2015
Palm Warbler at Magee Marsh, May 2, 2015
Prothonotary Warbler at Magee Marsh, May 2, 2015
Prothonotary Warbler at Magee Marsh, May 2, 2015
Black-throated Green Warbler at Magee Marsh, May 2, 2015
Black-throated Green Warbler at Magee Marsh, May 2, 2015
John Burroughs sign at Magee Marsh (2)
Yes, this.

I hope you enjoyed these photos, and I also hope I’ll have many more to share with you very soon. Even if you’re not lucky enough to live near the Great Black Swamp, make sure you still keep your eyes peeled in your neighborhood–you never know who might use your yard as a migration rest stop!

The Trickle Before the Flood

Black-throated Green Warbler (from last year)
Black-throated Green Warbler (from last year)

Well, the first few warbler species have started showing up in southeast Michigan this month. So far we have Yellow-rumped, Pine, Black-throated Green, Palm, Yellow, and Yellow-throated Warblers, as well as Common Yellowthroats. That might look like a lot for mid-April, but these species aren’t here in large numbers yet, just a few here and there. But the rest of them are definitely on their way. Soon, my pretties, very soon!

Reading all the reports of warblers on the various online birding groups has motivated me to get busy reviewing warbler songs using the Larkwire game. Every year I hope to improve my ability to identify the birds by their songs. I haven’t been too successful with it though. I think that’s because they’re only around for a few weeks each year and my brain just can’t seem to retain what I learn in my brief pre-migration cram sessions. And there are just so many species to learn–we have something like 40 warbler species that migrate through the eastern half of the country.

Warbler Guide book cover for websiteThis year I’m adding another tool to my arsenal: I’m using the book “The Warbler Guide,” which uses sonogram images of warbler songs to–supposedly–make it easier to distinguish the confusingly-similar songs. I’m especially eager to experiment with the techniques in this book since I’m going to be birding with the authors during The Biggest Week in American Birding. Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle are leading two of the “Birding with the Stars” walks at Magee Marsh, and I’ll be the volunteer host assisting them on one of their walks. (See, there are some sweeeeet perks to being a volunteer!) And I love the fact that Tom and Scott are donating 100% of the proceeds from their two walks to the Ohio Young Birders Club. That’s true generosity of spirit, if you ask me.

These weeks leading up to my annual visit to the Lake Erie shoreline are always hard to endure. Not only is my excitement getting boosted by the daily bird sightings, but preparations for the festival are in high gear now as we count down the last 17 days.

Biggest Week T-shirt for 2015
Biggest Week T-shirt for 2015

The new festival t-shirt design was just revealed this weekend. Created by Paul Riss (of Punk Rock Big Year fame), this one is already a big hit with everyone who has seen it.

And even more exciting, there’s now a smartphone app created just for the Biggest Week (the first time a birding festival has had its own app…very cool). I got my free copy from BirdsEye on the day it was released, and set it up to link with my eBird account. So now when I launch the app, it uses GPS to tell me instantly if there are birds nearby that I haven’t yet seen. It shows my “life list” as well as a list of all the species that have been seen by other people in whatever location I happen to be in at the moment.

BirdsEye screenshotAs you can see in this screenshot from my phone, I still haven’t managed to see the Connecticut and Kentucky Warblers (nor the Prairie Warbler, which isn’t shown on this screen). So only three more warblers to go and I will have seen all of the eastern species at least once. The Connecticut is one of the hardest ones for anyone to see because they skulk around deep in the underbrush, taunting us, defying us to find them. I’m sure I’ll eventually see one though. I’m in no hurry. I like the idea of always having more birds to see for the first time anyway. The anticipation is almost as good as the moment you finally get to see the bird. Almost.

Blackburnian Warbler, one of my favorites
Blackburnian Warbler, one of my favorites


And the anticipation of being back in the midst of all those amazing birds is almost too much to take. This year I’ll be on my own for the first time, but I’m okay with that. I’m hoping to connect with a few special friends for quiet walks on the beach (…and in the woods and marshes). And for those times I feel the need to be with other people, it’ll be easy to mingle with a few hundred of my fellow birders on the Magee Marsh boardwalk. I don’t like to be in crowds all the time, but even an introvert like me can appreciate the fun of being surrounded by other people who love the birds as much as I do. Some of my favorite memories are from times on the Magee Marsh boardwalk when a group of total strangers shared smiles while watching a bright yellow or orange bird hopping from leaf to leaf just inches away, in total disregard of us. Those are the moments when I feel the real magic of birds, and I remember why this place is so special to so many people. I just cannot wait!



Migration Mania #3: Black-and-white Warbler

Okay, those of you who are paying attention have already said, “Hey, wait, it’s not migration time yet! What are you trying to pull here?” And you are absolutely correct–migration is many weeks away. But there’s no reason we can’t daydream about pretty little birds to help us get through the depths of winter, right? So I’m picking up with my Migration Mania series early this year. You may have forgotten about this series because I started it in 2013 with two articles (here and here) and then neglected it last year. But I didn’t forget…aren’t you glad?

Black-and-white Warbler

So in this edition of Migration Mania I’m going to tell you a bit about the Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia). He’s unusual among warblers because he doesn’t wear any of the bright colors we usually think of in these birds — yellows, oranges, and blues. The BAWW (that’s cool birder-speak for Black-and-white Warbler) wears a bold graphic pattern of…wait for it…black and white!

And not only does he stand out for his appearance, but he’s got a different way of feeding than the other warblers too. Most of them forage for food around the leaves of trees and shrubs, but this guy spends a lot of his time on the trunk and branches, probing the bark for hidden goodies. This is how you normally see a nuthatch or a creeper feeding, not a warbler. It’s an advantage for those of us trying to take warbler photographs, because it’s easier to keep focused on a bird moving up a tree trunk than one that’s hopping over and under leaves at the speed of light (well, that’s how fast it seems sometimes…).

So where are the BAWWs now, while we’re freezing our tushies off up north? They’re down in Central and South America, that’s where. Places like Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama. Nice and warm, and plenty of food. You can see on this map that there are some of them in the southern U.S. now, but they’re probably not on the move yet. By early or mid-March we’ll start seeing some northerly movements though, and they’ll be off on their long journey to their breeding grounds in the U.S. and Canada.

eBird map of Black-and-white Warblers in January 2015

Since this species is one of the earliest to move northward in spring, some of them will already be nesting in April. It’s thought that they can come north earlier in the spring because of their ability to feed from the bark of trees–they don’t need the leaves to be opened before they come up here, like most of the other warblers. That’s a cool little fact to know, isn’t it? There are a few more fun facts below these photos.

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler (2)

Fun facts:

  • These little birds weigh less than half an ounce and will fly an average of 20 miles each night during migration. Yes, that’s right, they migrate at night. As dawn breaks they drop down from the sky to feed so they’ll have energy to fly again the next night.
  • What do they eat? Butterflies, moths, ants, flies, bugs, click beetles, round-headed wood borers, leaf beetles, weevils, leafhoppers, plant lice, spiders, daddy longlegs, and more. Yum!
  •  The females build their nests on the ground, using dry leaves and grasses. The nest is usually at the base of a tree or beside a fallen log.
Black-and-white Warbler undertail
I love the pattern on his undertail coverts (the feathers that cover the base of his tail feathers).

I hope you enjoyed getting a closer look at one of my favorite warblers! And I hope you’ll be inspired to look for these adorable little birds when you’re outdoors this spring.

(Source for the stuff I didn’t know: Birds of North America Online from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

Dare I Show You My Nature Drawings?

Sketching in the Wild by Kelly Riccetti (600x800)I guess I do dare, because that’s what I’m getting ready to do. In order to go through with this public display of my first sketching attempts, I’m repeating over and over in my head, “Silence your inner critic!” in the gentle voice of Kelly Riccetti. Kelly is the very patient and talented artist who taught me (and some other eager nature lovers) for a few hours on a rainy May day in northern Ohio during the Biggest Week in American Birding. We’d signed up for a course on field sketching and nature journaling and we got far more than we expected. As preparation for this course Kelly wrote and self-published an entire book, and gave it to us as part of our course materials.

She also gave us some drawing supplies and folding camp stools that we used in our class. We started our day at Pearson Metropark by setting up our little outdoor studio on the shore of a small pond. The first thing we drew was a landscKelly Riccetti teaching field journal sketching workshop (800x479)ape, to teach us about how to frame a view and dissect it into foreground, middle ground, and background. The view was lovely but I was very nervous, especially knowing that someone would be watching over my shoulder as I limped my way through a new skill. (That’s one of the stumbling blocks for HSPs, by the way. Even when we’re very good students, we often perform worse when we’re being observed.) But with her gentle encouragement and praise at our efforts, we all managed to get past that first assignment. And we had lots of fun doing it too.

Pond in the center, with an island on the left and a stone path on the right.
Pond in the center, with an island on the left and a stone path on the right. (Unfinished)

It was so funny because many of us were getting distracted by a singing Eastern Phoebe in the woods…this was the only time at the festival that we didn’t have our binoculars with us, and it felt very strange.

Next we moved to another location in the park and began learning to draw flowers. Our workbooks had lots of sample drawings and tips to help us, and we all dove right in this time.  Here are my first two flowers, with my attempts at shading to give them dimension. I really enjoyed this part.

Daisy sketch (2) (800x600)

After a lunch break we moved on to drawing birds. I had a feeling many of us had been waiting for this part — after all, we were at a birding festival and were all bird lovers! But birds are harder than flowers, that’s for sure. Kelly explained ways to draw two-second bird sketches as a way to warm up and train ourselves to begin to really see the birds. But after that we practiced on bird photos, learning to show different postures and how to place the eyes, beaks, and other parts properly. I was fascinated at how useful some of the drawing tools were too. The kneaded eraser is so much better than any other eraser I’ve ever used! And the little blending sticks (tortillons) make all the difference in the world in a sketch. I’m so glad she taught us to use those things!

Move over Charley Harper....haha, just kidding!
Move over Charley Harper….haha, just kidding!

This is an unfinished sketch of a Northern Cardinal. I was attempting to copy one of Kelly’s drawings from her book, but when she saw what I was doing she said my style reminded her of Charley Harper’s work.  I didn’t even know I had a style already, but you can put me in the same sentence with Mr. Harper any time!

And then there was this, my attempt to imitate her drawing of a junco. This one is probably more of her work than mine, as she used it to show me how to make it look more realistic. Very cool. (You can see in my notes more evidence that we were distracted by real birds during our workshop — the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were an extremely rare species to see in northern Ohio and we were grateful that Kelly let us take time to go see them right in the middle of her class.)Junco sketch with help from Kelly (1) (800x600)

I’ve been home for about ten days now and hadn’t had time to practice until today. Kelly mentioned that she was going to revise her book (this is a first draft) and add a chapter on frogs, turtles, and snakes. I remembered that I’d shot a good photo of a garter snake a couple years ago on the beach at Tawas Point State Park (during another birding festival, of course), and I decided to see if I could sketch that photo. And I did! I know there are some problems with this sketch, but it’s my first attempt and it only took me about 45 minutes, so I’m pretty much in love with it.  By the way, since I have this birder’s compulsion to put a name on everything I see, I believe this is a Butler’s Garter Snake (Thamnophis butleri). There, that feels better.

Garter snake sketched from my photo.
Garter snake sketched from my photo.

A closer look — I didn’t know how to show the sand, so I just made dots all over the page:

Dots = sand!
Dots = sand!

My next step is to do some sketching from the real world instead of from photos. I’ll probably do more flowers or other things that don’t move as fast as birds, at least for now. But I’m pretty sure there will be some more bird sketches in my future too. How can I resist?

I highly recommend that  you jump over to Kelly’s blog, Red and the Peanut, and take a look around. You’ll see fabulous photos and maybe even be inspired to start your own field journal. I know you’re anxious to get to the art supply store, so I’ll leave you with a couple quotes from Kelly’s book:

“Field sketching is more about observation than it is about drawing….it’s also about connecting with nature, relaxing, preserving memories, and having fun! Sketching is a form of meditation, and the peace you derive from sitting still while you study and sketch even a simple leaf is a benefit you can take with you in your daily life.”

And this one:

“Being an amateur naturalist is more than just an avocation to fill up your spare time, it’s a way of life that makes living richer, deeper and more fun!”

I can vouch for that part already. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t think it’s ever too late to learn a new skill. Admittedly it’s harder to be “not good” at something as an adult student, but a great teacher can even make that part easier. Just remember to put a muzzle on your inner critic and go full steam ahead. You never know where you might end up, and that makes life exciting and fresh!

Full-Frame Warbler Action on the Boardwalk!

I didn’t expect to be posting already on our first day at the Biggest Week in American Birding but we had such an extraordinary experience in only 90 minutes on the Magee Marsh boardwalk this afternoon that I just had to share with you. Mostly pictures, few words, because we have to be on a bus at 6:00 am tomorrow for an all-day field trip.

Since we only had a short time to bird this afternoon, we only managed to get halfway across the boardwalk before we had to turn back. But oh my gosh did we get a show! The warblers were coming down so close to us that I couldn’t even get pictures of them because my camera won’t focus that close.  For example, this Prothonotary Warbler was within arm’s reach of us for so long that I almost didn’t manage to get a picture of him, but when I did, just look at this beauty, filling the frame of the camera:

Prothonotary Warbler, only a couple feet away!
Prothonotary Warbler, only a couple feet away!

Most of my bird pictures have to be cropped down, but not that baby! Immediately after we saw him, we got good looks at this Ovenbird:


Next up was this stunning Black-and-white Warbler:

Black-and-white Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler

We saw quite a few Black-throated Green Warblers, and I got my first ever look at one of them from up on the observation tower, so I could see his gorgeous yellow-green back.

Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler seen from above -- isn't he gorgeous?
Black-throated Green Warbler seen from above — isn’t he gorgeous?
A very photogenic Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
A very photogenic Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

We’re in our room at the Maumee Bay Lodge now watching a beautiful sunset over Lake Erie, winding down from the excitement of the first day, eagerly looking forward to tomorrow. It’s going to rain on us but somehow knowing that these amazing birds are still here makes that all right.

The Ties That Bind

Prothonotary Warbler - seen at Magee Marsh in Ohio on April 23, 2014.
Prothonotary Warbler – seen at Magee Marsh in Ohio on April 23, 2014.
Photo by Jack Kennard via Flickr Creative Commons license
Photo by Jack Kennard via Flickr Creative Commons license

If your education was like mine, at some point in elementary school you were taught that birds migrate south in the winter.  “South” was usually assumed to mean Florida. In fact, a woman I met recently told me that she honestly thought ALL birds went to Florida for the winter. I was stunned, but then I realized that before I got into birding I had never thought about migration beyond the tiny bit of info I’d been fed in school. I know more about bird migration now though, and there’s one particular aspect of it that I want to share with you, one that might impact how you feel about your morning cup of coffee.

Red-winged Blackbird, another of our migratory species
Red-winged Blackbird, another of our migratory species

But first let’s get a few things straight. Yes, birds tend to live and breed farther north in summer and then go south for the winter. But “north” and “south” are relative. Some birds breed in the Arctic and then fly south only as far as southern Canada or the northern U.S. for the winter. Other birds breed in Canada or the northern U.S. and fly all the way to Central or South America for the winter. Most warblers rely on insects as their main food source, so when insects aren’t available up north, they have to go south. A few species can survive on berries and seeds though, and those birds are sometimes able to stay up north all year (like the Yellow-rumped Warbler, for one).

The Prothonotary Warbler shown at the top of this post will probably spend next winter in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, or even Columbia. Then he’ll fly back north, arriving here in Michigan in late April or early May. If he flies from Bogota, Columbia, to Detroit, that’s a distance of 2,653 miles (4,270 km). Think about it: This bird is only 5.5″ long (14cm). If my math is correct, just flying ONE mile is 11,520 times the length of its body. That would be like me (five foot five inches tall) flying almost TWELVE miles with nothing but my own body strength.  When you multiply those numbers by more than 2,500 miles, your mind –and your calculator– will explode with the effort of comprehending it all. Amazing little creatures, aren’t they?

So what do our warblers need while they’re down south? Well, they need a habitat that supports lots of insects–someplace where all the insects haven’t been killed with pesticides. Up until a few decades ago they found a wonderful supply of insects on coffee farms, where coffee was primarily grown in the cover of shade trees. But when the big coffee companies found that they could grow more coffee cheaper if they cut down all the trees, they began to do exactly that. Millions of acres of trees were destroyed in the name of profit. Even then the warblers might have had a chance at living on coffee plants. But the high-yield coffee plants that grow in the sun require lots of pesticides and fertilizers. And those chemicals kill even more of the insects that the warblers depend on for their survival.

Photo by Dr_Relling via Flickr Creative Commons license
Photo by Dr_Relling via Flickr Creative Commons license

Think about it. Even if “our” birds are happy and healthy up here where they breed in the summer, what happens if they can’t survive on their wintering grounds? They won’t be coming back north in the spring, that’s for sure. Imagine what life up north would be like with zillions of mosquitoes and no birds to help you out with that little problem. See how our world is tied together? The health of our ecosystem in North America is directly tied to that of South America. To care for the birds that eat our insects, we also have to make sure they are cared for in their southern habitats too.

This is why there’s an effort to get farmers to go back to the traditional method of growing coffee on shaded plantations that support the birds. Many people say that shade-grown coffee tastes better too, imagine that? Smithsonian bird-friendly-logoRight now there’s only one brand of coffee that has the Bird-Friendly certification from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, and that’s Birds & Beans. I don’t mean this to be a commercial for them, but I just wanted to let you know that there are lots of other companies marketing coffee as “bird safe” or “shade-grown,” even though some of those so-called certifications are questionable. If it matters to you, you can read about the certification process on the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center website.



Are They Here Yet? Huh, huh? Are They Here Yet?

Girl with binoculars
(Photo by Johan Koolwaaij via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Yes, it’s that time again, when those of us in northern latitudes start thinking about the return of our songbird friends. After a long and difficult winter, it’s time to lift our eyes skyward in search of things with wings. It’s time to start watching the eBird maps to see where our favorite migrants are each week, and try to predict when they’ll be passing through. It’s time to celebrate the return of spring and look forward to many hours spent hunting for our favorite birds in the woods, marshes, and grasslands. Yes, the days are filled with anticipation.

eBird map showing locations of Black-and-White Warblers as of March 19, 2014
eBird map showing locations of Black-and-White Warblers as of March 19, 2014
Black-and-White Warbler (by Jason Weckstein via Flickr Creative Commons license)
Black-and-White Warbler (Photo by Jason Weckstein via Flickr Creative Commons license)

This map shows where the Black and White Warblers are as of today…see, they’re already up to North Carolina! These striking birds spend the winter in Mexico, Central America and South America, with some of them only going as far south as Southern Texas or Florida. But they are definitely on the move now, and I’ll be checking eBird often now to watch the progression of those little orange markers on the map, which should pop up in Michigan in only four short weeks.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is also helping whip us all into a frenzy of excitement with their annual March Migration Madness brackets, where you can vote your favorite birds up in the rankings each week. I just voted for the Painted Bunting over the Bullock’s Oriole, basing my vote purely on the joyful colors of the bunting (I pick my basketball teams by the colors of their outfits too, by the way).

Today we're voting on the Tweet Sixteen...come and play with us (It's more fun than basketball!)
Today we’re voting on the Tweet Sixteen…come and play with us (It’s more fun than basketball!) (Photo by Melissa James via Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

It occurs to me that the Cornell Lab is a serious enabler. But in this sense, that’s a very good thing.

Photo via Max_Rae via Flickr Creative Commons license
Is that a bird over there? Is it? I think it is!                                                              (Photo by Max_Rae via Flickr Creative Commons license)

If you’re curious (or obsessed) and want to find out where and when the birds will be in your area, you can read the forecasts on Cornell’s Birdcast site. 

Since I’ll be so focused on birds for the next couple of months, I’d be thrilled to answer any of your bird-related questions if you want to send them to me. Heck, I’ll do that anytime. I’m no expert, but I sure know where to find answers. I’m trained as a librarian–so I’ve got killer research skills–and I know quite a few bird experts too. Just leave me a comment or use the “Contact Me” tab at the top of the page. I guess I’m an enabler too. 😉

Wherever you’re reading this from, I hope you find time to get out in nature this spring. And don’t forget to look up in the trees occasionally — you never know what might turn up during migration!