By GENE BULLOCK
It’s more poetic to rhapsodize about May flowers, but the real reason many of our songbirds fly north each spring is bugs.
Instead of complaining about the bugs, bird lovers should be grateful they are such a prolific food source. Our beautiful swallows don’t put on those delightful aerial displays for our benefit. They are scooping up bugs to feed themselves and their nestlings. Hummingbirds relish those squirming insects they find among the flower petals. Unlike the old lady who swallowed the fly, these birds would be tickled to have a spider wriggling and jiggling inside.
For bird watchers, May means saying “goodbye” to the birds of winter and “hello” to the annual pageant of shorebirds and songbirds headed for their northern breeding grounds. It’s a wondrous window on the millions of migrants winging their way north. But it’s a relatively brief window, because most do not breed in our area. And, once the young are fledged, the courtship displays and songs come to a halt. For birds, summer is a time to be less visible to predators. While it helps them survive another season, summer can be a lean time for bird watching.
For birds, however, summer is fleeting. By August, many are making their way south. Our Rufous Hummingbirds are gone by early August, and shorebirds are gathering in prime feeding areas all along the Pacific flyway. Spring migrations occur rapidly as “ice out” pushes north to the Arctic. But fall migrations are more leisurely, with subtle nudges from the wind and weather.
In May, bird watchers shift their attention from marine birds and waterfowl to the shrubs and trees. Identifying little brown birds skulking in the brush requires sharp eyes, quick reflexes and some skill. Identification often hinges more on habitat, behavior and sound, than on getting clear “bird book” looks. For many of us, however, the main action is at our feeders and in our yards as the migrants stoke up and the local birds settle in to raise their broods.
Birders who can identify birds by sound have skills they’ve worked hard to master. But even for the rest of us, bird songs make spring a special time, and fill the air with their music. You don’t need to be an expert to enjoy the lively conversations of the House Finch, the vivacious trills of the Song Sparrow or the lethargic summer sounds of the White-crowned Sparrow. And what’s summer without the cheery songs of the American Robin?
Those who enlarge their repertoires by learning to recognize a few other bird calls can expand their enjoyment of Nature and experience the world around them in ways that too many of us miss during our daily busyness. You can thrill to the sound of the Swanson’s Thrush calling from a dense thicket, or learn to recognize the melodious sound of the Black-headed Grosbeak, which some say sounds like a Robin that has taken voice lessons.
The sound and sight of birds awakens the senses and brings a special joy to each day. Sadly, many homeowners are convinced their lawns must be kept weed free. Yet the indiscriminate use of weed killers and pesticides is toxic to the insects the birds feed on, and therefore toxic to the birds and their offspring. As a result, we’re seeing dramatic declines in some species. The toxic runoff is also poisoning Puget Sound and the fish we feed to our own broods.
Bird watching is a wonderful way to connect with Nature. And people who love birds can’t help caring about the way human behavior affects them. So quit worrying about the weeds. Get outside and experience the boundless beauty of the natural world.