The question I hear most often this time of year: “When should I put the hummingbird feeder out?” The answer is now. Although ruby-throated hummingbirds have already started to trickle in, most of them buzz into eastern Maine around Mother’s Day Weekend.
Meanwhile, the normal early May flood of incoming birds has been mostly a trickle. Songbirds migrate into Maine in waves. Pine, yellow-rumped and palm warblers typically show up around the third weekend of April. This year, they were right on time. Eastern phoebes, ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, tree swallows, northern waterthrushes and blue-headed vireos are usually right behind them. These were also on time.
Then the weather changed. Much of last week was a cold, dreary mess. Much of this week featured sunny, warmer conditions but with stiff breezes from the north and west. In other words, we’ve had a week of migrant-discouraging headwinds.
Songbirds migrate at night when breezes are favorable, either calm or a southerly tailwind. This week’s headwinds persuaded many migrants in the second wave to wait, though a small vanguard did arrive last weekend. Black-and-white warblers — which usually appear around the first of May — were about four days late. A smattering of black-throated green warblers, northern parulas, ovenbirds and Nashville warblers followed the black-and-white warblers.
My first yellow warbler of the season popped into my neighbor’s yard on Monday. Still, overall warbler numbers remained abnormally low as the strong northerly winds persisted all week.
A third wave of songbirds typically arrives during the second half of May. Many of these are traveling a longer distance, from Central America and South America. You can’t blame chestnut-sided and Tennessee warblers for being late to the party. Most traveled from Costa Rica. Blackpolls and bay-breasted warblers also arrive in the third wave. Even abundant birds, such as American redstarts and common yellowthroats, take their time getting here.
Flycatchers are often in the third wave. No surprise, since tropical jungles are a good place to snatch insects out of the air all winter.
It’s rare to go through the entire month of May without a spate of bad weather. Migration delays happen every year. It’s just a question of when and where. The bad weather blocking migration may be far to the south of New England. Birds generally return to Maine on a predictable schedule, but it seems that at least one of the waves gets held up each spring.
I look forward to welcoming my old friends back, and I notice when they’re late, even by just a handful of days. Baltimore orioles and great-crested flycatchers should have been in my yard by now. They’re tardy, and I’m disappointed.
Most folks watch birds as an effortless way to appreciate nature. However, it can be a deeper experience when you start to recognize and appreciate nature’s rhythms. How birds react to weather conditions, other birds, other wildlife and you can generate endless hours of fascination. Identifying what birds you’re seeing is fun. Identifying what they’re doing is funner.
Is it just me, or are the black flies early this year? Usually, I don’t expect the devil’s spawn to start swarming until the second week of May, but they were out in force last weekend. I feel like the trees budded out a little early, too. That’s one of those tricky little things that climate change biologists keep an eye on.
Birds evolved to time their migrations for where and when the food is optimal. But if spring comes earlier, and weather patterns get ornerier, birds could mistime their journeys and miss getting the full banquet they were expecting.
Is it just me, or are opossums stampeding north? I haven’t seen any live ones lately, but I’ve noticed several unfortunate roadkills by the side of I-95 in Bangor over the last week. Or maybe they were just playing possum. Supposedly, they eat a lot of ticks, but recent studies suggest that’s just a myth. I hope the studies are wrong. I’m getting tired of picking off ticks after a day of birding.
Another myth worth debunking: No, hummingbirds don’t migrate on the backs of Canada geese. How do these fables get started? Ruby-throated hummingbirds winter in the tropics. Their return to Maine includes a long flight over the Gulf of Mexico, which is something that Canada geese don’t do. Besides, hummingbirds need to arrive here this very weekend. Canada geese arrive when they get around to it. As Uber drivers for hummingbirds, geese would be notoriously unreliable.