As days grow longer, the birds begin to sing

A neighbor recently said, “Hey Alan, the birds are back!” She described the songs she had been hearing, but she was surprised when I told her those are resident birds that never really left. What’s “back” is the sun; the birds are singing on cue to the lengthening of the day.

The increasing light triggers hormones to surge and urge birds to sing, claim a territory and attract a mate. Think of it as the surge of the urge, and it begins with song. The residents that sing early in the season include house finch, song sparrow, junco, pine siskin, towhee, Bewick’s wren and increasingly the cheery robin.  Another early-singing resident is the feisty male Anna’s hummingbird. On most any sunny day in winter, you can hear one chatter in a ratchety voice from various perches and watch as he launches himself straight up and out of sight where he then folds his gossamer wings and accelerates downward into a vertical J-curve dive punctuated with a loud “peep!” at the bottom.

Anna’s hummers display a mostly merlot-red head and throat compared to the mostly orange rufous hummingbird, which began arriving from California and Mexico in early March. The migration of the bright orange rufous hummingbird coincides with the bloom of red-flowering currant and salmonberry, sweetly leading them north with nectar. Concurrently, early arrivals of violet-green swallows can occur in February, although they are more numerous in March. As the name implies, the beautiful iridescent violet-green swallow usually occurs in small groups of several individuals or more seen and heard chattering while they swoop, turn and glide above rooftops and eaves like miniature fighter jets. This swallow seeks to nest in tree cavities or nest boxes, unlike the later-arriving barn swallow, which builds its mud nest above your door and deposits copious droppings on the ground.

Following these “early birds,” others will be arriving in April and continuing through June, in wave after wave from as far away as South America. Most migrating songbirds fly at night to conserve energy and avoid predators. Large flocks of migrating birds show up on radar screens across the northern hemisphere. They stop at various feeding and resting points along their route, usually for a day or more, which emphasizes the critical importance of wildlife and bird sanctuaries at favored bays, mudflats, fields, woodlands and wetlands around the country.

On a good day in April, the trees at Point Robinson can be literally dripping with yellow-rumped warblers, affectionately known as “butterbutts,” as they stop to refuel after making their over-water passage. Many of these and other migrating warblers are mostly passing through as they head further north or into the mountains to reach their breeding grounds. Other birds continue to arrive later in April through June, including vireos, white-crowned sparrows, purple martins, more warblers and, last but not least, the flycatchers. The very small but audibly conspicuous willow flycatcher is the perennial last arrival in early June, and it announces itself with a characteristic sneeze-like song of “fitzbew!”

These waves of migration continue to build and wash over us and offer a peak in bird song from May 15 through the summer solstice on June 21, after which bird song gradually subsides to an almost eerie and sad quietness by mid-August.

Meanwhile, the lengthening days bring us “back” also, at least back outside. Upon stepping out into her very large vegetable garden in spring embraced by a warm sun and surrounded by bird song, my grandmother would say, “Oh, my heart is singing!” Mine is too.

— Alan Huggins, an amateur naturalist and master birder, teaches the Enjoyment of Birds for Vashon Audubon.

An “Enjoyment of Birds” class will begin March 31. See page 9 for more information. Also visit the Vashon Audubon website at vashonaudubon.org and download the seasonal bird checklist to check the monthly occurrence of both the resident and migratory birds of Vashon.

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