Opinion

The chorus of birds heralds spring’s arrival | Bird Notes

Rumor has it spring is almost here. Which reminds me of late December, when a checker at Thriftway paused to ask me, “What’s going on with the birds? They seem much more active than a week ago.” She described a burst of activity and song by robins, chickadees, sparrows and other winter resident songbirds a day or two after the winter solstice. Were they already responding to the beginning of longer days? Maybe.

In his book, “Bird Song by the Season: A Year of Listening to Birds,” renowned bird song authority Donald Kroodsma observed that bird vocalization, at least for some common winter species, increases on the winter solstice and builds in a gradual crescendo to a raucous chorus from April through June. Of course, being a scientist, he invites further corroboration for the winter solstice observations.

Imagine birds singing on the winter solstice as though spring has sprung while we and our many non-feathered friends feel confined to tweet and twitter on a keyboard through the proverbial dead of winter. Those winter resident birds are a hardy bunch. Their layered feathers provide amazing protection from the winter cold. They include robins, chickadees, nuthatches, sparrows, finches, wrens, woodpeckers and many more, including the tiny Anna’s hummingbird.

In fact, on milder and at least partly sunny winter days, the male hummers are diligently defending their territory. Their seemingly death-defying displays begin with a vertical climb straight up to 100 feet or more and then a head-first dive that’s so fast you lose sight of the bird until it reappears in an upward turn at the bottom punctuated with a loud “peep!”

The females take note of all the excitement and then choose their mate. These hummers, and most of our winter resident birds, get a head start on establishing territory and mating before the return of most tropical migrants that left in fall and return to breed here in March through June. April is a good month to become familiar with the songs of our winter birds before the return of scores of migratory species. By May and June, bird song can be overwhelming as everyone is back breeding and singing a raucous chorus.

One of the earliest returning migrants, the rufous hummingbird, begins trickling in from California and Mexico in late February, March and April, enticed northward by increasing daylight hours, temperature and the blossoming of red-flowering currant and Indian plum.

Another early returning migrant is the violet-green swallow. Then from mid-March through May wave after wave of migratory songbirds arrive from California to Argentina, including tanagers, flycatchers, swallows, grosbeaks, orioles and warblers — all trying to cash in on the long days and abundant food.

One of the later arrivals is the Swainson’s thrush, whose “whit” call note I’ve heard in Mexico in February and again on Vashon in May. It gradually shifts into its full song throughout the day as it claims a territory and finds a mate. By June, these thrushes perform an encore of their ethereal upwardly-spiraling song at dusk, just after robins quiet down and before bats take flight.

And what about the ducks, loons and grebes that winter on our shorelines, bays and ponds? Like all the other birds of spring, they are adorned in colorful breeding plumage and pairing up to migrate mostly northward into interior mountains, lakes and streams by May.

Oh, and then there are those millions of peeps, plovers and other shorebird species that are migrating up the Pacific Coast to nest from Oregon to Alaska. And what about those gulls, terns, pelicans and others?

Oops. I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s only March and the chorus of local birds is only just warming up. Although bird song may be subtly detectable just after the winter solstice, it will surely bring a renewed and welcome wake-up call in the coming weeks.

 

— Alan Huggins teaches the Enjoyment of Birds for Vashon Audubon.

 

The Vashon Audubon Bird checklist shows the monthly occurrence and frequency of the species that spend all or part of the year on Vashon. Purchase a printed copy at Wings Birdseed Co. or download it from www.vashonaudubon.org.

Vashon Audubon offers two classes on bird song in April and early June. Classes fill quickly. See vashonaudubon.org or email alanhugs@comcast.net for information.

 

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