Prairie Warbler singing. Photograph by Sandy Selesky.
By mid-July this past summer, we started harvesting peas, lettuce, Swiss chard, beet greens, and our first early potatoes from our northeastern Vermont garden. As I picked peas, I found myself thinking that we had just planted everything only a short time ago. In late May, I was on my knees, digging a small, one-inch deep trench into which I carefully placed one tiny pea seed at a time, about an inch or so apart along the length of 15 yards or so. Merely six or seven weeks later, here I was, picking full pods of sweet, delicious peas from three-foot high vines. Likewise, I had planted potato tubers, which resulted in lush green vegetation and multiple potatoes from each tuber in the same short period of time. I was simply astonished at the short time needed between the planting of seeds to the harvesting of fresh vegetables sprawling across the garden.
Similarly, I am always amazed at how quickly the prime birding season goes by for us in the Northeast. After sometimes harsh months of bitter cold or snow, we eagerly look forward to the coming spring and arrival of our migrants. This year, Bob, Alvin, and I started looking in late February for our first American Woodcock to arrive, so hopeful were we that we would hear our first returning migrants while still in the grips of a mostly silent winter. Soon after in March we began to hear such birds as Red-winged Blackbirds, but we must always contend with the unpredictable New England weather. So although we know what is to come, even in early spring it seems like the coming of the spring migration is still a distant speck in time.
April brings more migrants, mostly of the shorebird and waterfowl variety. We begin to get really excited with our first Tree Swallows, our first Eastern Phoebes, our first Palm Warblers, and a few other songbirds.
But the real stars of the show, and the ones that really send us racing both in spirit and in body crisscrossing the region, are the warblers, grosbeaks, tanagers, flycatchers, orioles, and other songbirds that arrive in full force in May. The frantic pace of birding in May will not be matched at any other time of year, which is why I think that the real birding begins that month.
I find it hard to imagine traveling outside of New England in May because it is the zenith of our birding year, the beginning of an incredibly intense time of seeing and hearing birds, and a time to savor each and every moment of welcoming our birds back because that time, like our vegetable garden, will pass far too quickly.
There is no better example of how migrating birds can essentially leave us birders in their dust than visiting Mount Auburn Cemetery in May. Before the first of May, the grounds are mostly quiet and free of birders. But come May, birders flock to the venerable garden cemetery, hoping to see 20 or more species of warblers, Baltimore Orioles singing from the top of flowering trees, melodic thrushes captivating those in the Dell, and much more. Then, merely three weeks later, birders largely disappear and the cemetery returns to its reflective self. In what seems to be an instant, the migration is over at Mount Auburn Cemetery and the birds and birders must wait another year as the season shifts from migration to breeding season.
As spring migration passes Massachusetts by, Bob, Alvin, and I largely move ourselves to northern New England where we can enjoy several more weeks of intense bird song, which simply fills the air. Pretty soon, we casually say, oh, another Common Yellowthroat, or another Northern Waterthrush. But in truth, we are enjoying the song for a relatively short time, and I constantly try to remind myself never to take any single song from any individual bird for granted. I know that within a matter of just a few weeks, I will not hear them again for, gulp, another 10 months or so.
As June progresses into July, the song diminishes gradually. It seems that slowly, one by one, songs of various species drop off, until sometime in early to mid-August, you are left with only a few species that you sometimes hear singing, such as American Robin, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, and other birds that often sing many months of the year in our part of the world.
In late July, we can still hear songs from vireos, including Warbling, Red-eyed, and Blue-headed vireos; Song, Chipping, and White-throated sparrows; Hermit and Wood thrushes; Purple Finch; and American Goldfinch. But gone, for the most part, are the warblers and orioles. The Baltimore Oriole in particular seems to sing up a storm for maybe four or five weeks and then its trumpet-like song just disappears. I am just getting comfortable with my oriole friends when they abandon me with their silence.
In August, I am resigned to the fact that the birding season is mostly over for me, given my visual limitations and the absence of bird song. Sure, we still go with Bob from time to time to bird, and I can take great vicarious pleasure in listening to Bob as he describes what he is seeing. But the birding for me is just that, vicarious. This is not to say that I do not enjoy it, but I do feel sadness at the realization that I have to wait many months until I hear my birds again. The instant jolt of adrenaline that I feel when I hear the familiar warbler songs will not be felt for many more months, and I just shake my head and ask, where did the time go? How could the song season have been so short?
Given how short the season seems, I tend to hang onto every song that I hear as the season winds down. As the singing fades through the summer, I stop and linger with every song that I hear. A Hermit Thrush singing near the edge of our woods one late July morning stopped me in my tracks for nearly 30 minutes. A Chipping Sparrow’s incessant and dry trill, not necessarily described as beautiful, is sweet to my ears in early August. A Black-throated Blue Warbler in full song amidst silence all around snaps me to attention from working on my laptop. An early August Common Yellowthroat singing glues me to the spot, in sharp contrast to only weeks earlier when their songs were so numerous that I hardly noticed. The clicking of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds visiting the feeder throughout August bring smiles and warmth to my heart.
With the spring and summer fading into the fall migration, our northern outdoors becomes largely devoid of song, replaced by the chips and chirps and calls that are so hard to identify. I continue to try to learn who is behind any given call, but this is very challenging and frustrating. I soon yearn for the full song that will rise again next spring.
So, yes, savor each and every moment, each and every day, when you hear the full song of our migrant and breeding birds. Time will flash by before we have to endure another long drought of song. Oh, I have to go now. I think I just heard a Scarlet Tanager and I want to follow its song. Not exactly beautiful, but sweet to my ears.
Martha Steele, a former editor of Bird Observer, has been progressively losing vision due to retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind. Thanks to a cochlear implant, she is now learning to identify birds from their songs and calls. Martha lives with her husband, Bob Stymeist, in Arlington. Martha can be reached at email@example.com.