By Terry Grabill
Spring migration can be a fascinating frenzy of surprise guests. Birders know that on any spring day, strangers may show up in places you’d never predict! These travelers are often easily seen as they replenish their energy stores for the next leg of their northerly journey. Experienced birders fill their weekends (and more, if time allows!) with road trips to witness the annual event.
Then comes summer: a season of more predictability. The dawn chorus of songbirds is filled with familiar voices as robins, red-eyed vireos, Baltimore Orioles, and song sparrows make an overwhelming concert each daybreak. The northerly migrants have moved on from my home in West Michigan. They’ve made their way to the deep coniferous forests of Canada or, in some cases, farther north. Left, are our old friends; those that nest and breed here.
When I look out the front window over the yard, robins are invariably there poking the grass in search of a tasty morsel. The crowns of the mature oaks and maples have red-eyed vireos singing their “Here I am! Look at me! Over here!” cadence in what seems like an endless message. Vireos aren’t often seen once the leaves open; instead, their presence is announced loudly from above. At dusk, as we sit on the deck reflecting on the day, Eastern wood pewees ring out their abbreviated “PEEEEerrrr” until the last light is gone.
As a young birder, these are the birds I learned to identify first. They seemed like old friends that I could count on while birding my parents’ farm. Working near the barn, I would always see barn swallows flying their impossible twisting patterns after insects. Mom and Dad’s place isn’t mine now but barn swallows nest in our barn and, sometimes, I’m taken back to my boyhood as I watch them dart across the lawn.
Andrea and I do our best to provide habitat for the birds we love. Our little pond not only serves as home to some giant goldfish, but also a popular bathing place for the birds nesting near us. We provide nesting habitat around the yard too. While some of these nesting places are purposely placed, some are accidentally provided because the shed door was left open…or my son’s canoe was left bottom-up at the perfect height. Robins and Eastern phoebes are two of the old friends that use our sheds. Some of the most helpless hatchlings, these altricial babies grow at an astounding rate and leave the nest in less time than it takes the parents to incubate the clutch.
We have some more deliberate nest opportunities placed in the yard too. On a pole is our colony nest. This was placed in anticipation of purple martins or tree swallow that would dart around with the barn swallows; following the lawn mower, gobbling up insects. As it turns out, it is more of a European starling apartment complex. These noisy intruders are not my favorite old friends but, the “housing complex” provided for them seems to have satisfied their needs and they are not chasing or intruding on any my target birds as long as I leave the “low-rent” district intact.
The bluebird houses are a constant source of interest. They were placed in anticipation of families of Eastern bluebirds taking up residence in the yard. The reality has been a kind-of fortunate diversity. In one nest box, given to me by my brother, we’ve had house wrens with their bubbly explosion of song. The same nest box housed a family of black-capped chickadees the first year it was up. This year, that box is home to a pair of tree swallows. And, yes, we have bluebirds in one of our nest boxes almost every year.
A good summer-birding analogy is that it can be like family coming home. It doesn’t take any time at all to renew familiarity and comfort.
Welcome back old friends and let’s enjoy this time together until fall takes you away again.