Late May is a wondrous time in Wisconsin. Deciduous trees and shrubs are cloaked in newly emerging leaves, and conifer branches are tipped with light green new growth. Wildflowers burst from the ground and the first of the spring ephemerals are already fading away. Likewise, the damp weather has helped mushrooms prosper, and thanks to cool temperatures there are still spring peepers calling among the chorus of toads. Insects are also emerging to pollinate what they can and mate near the water. Deer are birthing their fawns. Early morning strolls aren’t long enough, there is so much to see.
Every morning there are new (for the year) birds in the woods and at the feeders. Orioles and grosbeaks are everywhere, with indigo buntings, catbirds, and a host of warblers and little brown things. Many have flown northward all night, and now must recover with food and rest, before moving on again. The migrants we see have traveled over a thousand miles on their own power, almost unbelievable for creatures weighing just a few grams. In the past, there were many large expanses of unbroken habitat for birds to use as they traveled. Their journey is more dangerous now as the landscape includes tall buildings, transmission lines, smaller habitat patches, cars and trucks, and new predators like cats. Migratory birds have over the years staked their existence on the ability to move long distances with the seasons, but those journeys are becoming more difficult all the time. Every year, some don’t make it.
Recently, we received a call at our nature center about a small bird that was found dead near here. The wonderful caller found the bird in his yard and described it as a tiny version of an oriole. Such a description fits that of an American Redstart, one of the warblers which not only migrates through our area, but also nests here. The bird had an aluminum band on its leg, meaning it had been caught, banded, and released by a licensed bird bander. The band number was 2790-60620, a number unique to that bird. No bird before or since will ever have that band number. This makes it possible to contact the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory in Maryland to inquire as to the banding information for that bird. Here is what we learned: an American Redstart, male, was banded in Thunder Bay, Ontario on September 4, 2017. It was estimated to be at least a year old at that time.
This remarkable little bird traveled from Canada to Central America or vice versa at least six times. If it spent the winter in, say Costa Rica, the trip would be about 3,800 miles. Six trips is about 22,800 miles- nearly the circumference of the Earth, and all made possible by only wings and muscles powered by a diet of insects. I’m not aware of how the bird died, but I find it incredibly sad when these hardy and athletic creatures travel so far only to be killed by man-made hazards thoughtlessly placed in their way. They bring so much joy to our lives- yet we take their safety for granted. Perhaps we should do a little more to help them. I know I am going to take a second look at the windows in my house, and try to make them a little safer. It’s the least I can do.
photo- America Redstart by Dennis Jarvis
Now we stand at the peak of spring. For birdwatchers, the weather has presented a challenge and east and north winds have not helped bring migrating birds to our area. I suspect that insects are less active near the cold Lakeshore, and birds may be moving inland where it’s warmer during this migration season. Still, some really “good birds” have been showing up – orioles, hummingbirds, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and interesting sandpipers like whimbrels. At the same, time trees are leafing out or blooming and toads are singing by the thousands. Life is bursting at the seams.
A magical moment occurred a few evenings ago. I happened to be near the edge of a river right at sunset. The wind had died, the sky was fair, and tiny insects were hatching. They flew, and rested on trees along the shore. There they encountered many warblers searching for their evening meal. I didn’t have binoculars with me, of course, but I could easily recognize a number of species- palm, chestnut-sided, and yellow warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, and others. Mostly silent except for little call notes, the warblers carefully and thoroughly inspected the tree branches, consuming bugs I couldn’t even see. In the misty twilight the scene was otherworldly, reminding me of a scene from the Amazon or perhaps some other forested planet. It made me appreciate that these little migrants had navigated up from the tropics, past large cities like Chicago, and were thus through the most dangerous part of this spring’s migration. Many songbirds migrate at night and I’m pretty sure the batch I was watching were feeding prior to taking flight. After a night of flying at 3,000 feet or so, it takes them a few days to refuel before attempting another segment of their journey. It’s an amazing feat for animals which weigh only a few grams.
Later that night, after dark, I was back outside. The toads were still singing and overhead were the faint peeps of songbirds flying. These little flight notes help birds communicate with each other as they fly in the dark. In the morning they will land perhaps 150 miles from where they started, to feed and rest up before attempting the next leg of their journey.
It’s easy to like and appreciate cute songbirds and lovely wildflowers. It’s important to understand just how important they are as well to making the natural world function as it’s supposed to. Also, to be aware of the incredible challenges they face as we contribute to an ever-changing world. They, and our other native species are precious living things from which we can learn much. They need to be able to co-exist with us, especially during this migration season. And we need to care for them and for the land on which we all live.
photo- a northern waterthrush, a warbler that nests at Woodland Dunes, by Nancy Nabak
Somehow, spring is in it’s highest gear right now. Migrant birds which spend the winter in tropics have now traveled north and are reaching us – hummingbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, warblers, buntings, orioles – all are showing up in our yards after favorable migration nights. Our habitats are starting to provide the insects and fruit these migrators need to sustain themselves (and enough extra so they have the energy to nest). The opportunity to reproduce is so precious that birds risk their lives to travel thousands of miles through hazardous places just to be able to nest. The birds here have passed through the most hazardous area for birds that we know of – northern Illinois, where its altered landscape and glass clad buildings just invite birds to collide. Below the buildings are speeding cars and free-roaming cats. None of these hazards existed before Europeans came. The birds know of no choice but to do what their kind has done for thousands of generations. We should be grateful for every bird we see.
When females arrive and find a suitable place and a mate, it doesn’t take long for nesting to begin. In some cases the males are some help, even with nesting, incubation of the eggs, and caring for young. The mothers, though, carry on the majority of their child-rearing themselves, sacrificing their safety for the next generation. If an intruder is present, they often stay with their nest until the last minute. In some cases, like the killdeer, they will try to draw away potential predators with behaviors indicating they themselves are injured as a distraction. Others slip quietly away from the nest, I’m sure hoping that it remains unnoticed. There are a lot of predators in the world who rightly must feed their own young, so a lot of nests are lost. If that happens early in the season birds will often nest again, sometimes three or four times.
In early April a pair of ospreys returned to the nest platform at Woodland Dunes, and wasted no time on the nest. The male and female arrived with in a day or two of each other and began the process of tidying up the nest and fertilization of eggs. It’s a month later now, and the female is incubating two eggs as I write. She is essentially glued to the nest, trying her best to keep the eggs warm, 50 feet off the ground in snow and rain and nasty east winds off Lake Michigan. Even though I know their feathers are water-repellent and warm, and the male takes an occasional turn at incubation so she can exercise a bit, I admire her devotion to duty when it is 39 degrees and raining. Or storming, or eventually broiling when it is full summer and the eggs have hatched but young must be fed frequently. The male helps, bringing in an occasional fish and warming the eggs some, but mostly he seems to be feeding himself and hanging around. My wife might say that sounds all too familiar.
Other mothers are experiencing similar scenarios now- small birds on nests, foxes in their damp dens, bats in old buildings- even some salamanders protect their eggs until hatched. The squirrels in my attic probably have the easiest time of all, tucked away in unseen places in a warm dry house.
In any case, it’s appropriate that we honor our mothers at this time of year for all they do and have done for us. As life seems to explode all around us in spring, it’s good to remember how important mothers of all kinds are, and how they deserve our respect and help.
photo- osprey with 2 eggs at Woodland Dunes taken by our nest cam
Around our homes, trees increase property values if selected and planted properly. They clean the air and moderate temperatures. They can produce fruit and other edible products. They take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it. They moderate noise. They are pleasing to look at, making us feel better. And, they provide shelter for native wildlife of all sorts- insects, birds, mammals, and others.
As is so often the case, spring seems to crawl along here on the Lakeshore. Tracking the dates of seaonal events in nature is called phenology, and it’s interesting to compare from year to year. A lot of seasonal events are weather dependent, like the return of red-winged blackbirds or the singing of the first frogs. Around here, there’s a lot of variation that corresponds to distance from Lake Michigan and how many days on which we have east winds.