Because the afternoon was too hot today for sitting outside, I stayed inside reading a book about bird migration instead. Songbird Journeys: Four Seasons in the Lives of Migratory Birds, by Miyoko Chu, mixes details from scientific research on bird migration over the last several decades with stories about birds and those who study them. It makes for especially interesting reading right now when migration over the Rio Grande Valley is at its height.
The author, Miyoko Chu, a writer and editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, weaves scientific data and vivid description into a fascinating narrative. But I felt a little uneasy about the birds I might be missing outside (more warblers? rare migrants?) while I remained inside to read a book about birds. My favorite reading place is under a shade tree, but even shade today provided little relief from heat, wind, and earth blowing off the dry cotton fields.
Ironically, a poem quoted by Chu echoed my uneasiness:
Why read a book when there are birds
Printing clear and breezy words
Upon the cloud's white pages? When
A busy robin and a wren
Are syllables of ecstasy!
A line of swallows on a tree,
Or wire, is a sentence, long
And sweeping. A flying flock's a strong
Paragraph, while in the air
Is quilled elaborately and rare
Illumined manuscript in gold
And green. And say, what book can hold
More fascination and delight
Than birds in migratory flight?
(--Collete M. Burns, "Why Read a Book?")
True, few books "can hold more fascination and delight than birds in migratory flight"--or in our backyard--but Chu's is a fascinating book that I highly recommend.
I'll take a break from the book (which really is hard to put down), and finish posting photos I took last week when we had that "fallout" of migrants in the yard. (Check out the previous two posts for all the buntings and warblers that came to the party.)
First up in my photos today are the thrushes, a group of species that have been the subject of scientific study of migration over the years. Last week Veeries, Gray-cheeked Thrushes, and Swainson's Thrushes stopped over in our yard to rest and refuel. It took me a while on Tuesday to realize I was seeing three different species, as one after another thrush came to the baths. (Maybe I had been inattentive, but after all, I was busy with the 18 species of warblers that had flown in!)
When I finally sorted out spots, colors, and eye-rings, I realized I was seeing several different birds and three different species. Pictured at the top of this post and at left is the lovely Veery, not quite as spotted as the other thrushes, with a warmer, almost reddish, tint and only the hint of an eye-ring.
Gray-cheeked Thrushes are slightly heavier and larger than Veeries. Their eponymous gray cheeks were a little hard to distinguish as they moved around under the trees and shrubs, but in the sunlight this field mark helps separate them from the Swainson's.
Swainson's Thrushes have more spots, buffier cheeks, and more of an eye-ring that could in fact be called spectacles.
Here a Swainson's perches on the brush pile alongside a Gray Catbird at the terra cotta saucer bath. I wanted to get pictures of the different thrushes together, but they seemed to be playing a kind of tag, one flying off just as another arrived.
The most noticeable migrants in the yard were probably the orioles. The oranges I put out for our resident Altamira Orioles and summering Hooded Orioles were quickly eaten by migrating Baltimore Orioles and Orchard Orioles. We replenished the supply several times a day, and when we ran out of oranges, I put grape jelly in the empty orange peels.
Baltimore Orioles occasionally winter here. Orchard Orioles historically nested in the area, but I don't know of any recently. A few years ago a Fuertes's Oriole, sometimes considered a separate species and sometimes a distinctive subspecies of the Orchard, spent the summer in our yard, singing almost constantly. It often interacted with the Hooded Orioles. If there was a female Fuertes's, I couldn't tell it from the female Hoodeds. The bird returned the next summer, also, but I haven't seen one since.
Although these last two orioles are both adult males, the one above is more orange. Perhaps it's an older bird. The one above is in more shadow than the lower one, however, and that may make it appear darker orange. Whatever the exact shade of gold or orange, a Baltimore Oriole is a beautiful bird. When they are in the yard to rest between legs of their long migratory journey, they adorn the trees, feeders, and baths with a richness of color than is almost unparalleled.
The smaller brick-red Orchard Oriole is also lovely. Note the black tail that also distinguishes it from the Baltimore.
Absent from the yard last week were Bullock's Orioles which we usually see in small numbers during migration. A four-oriole day is a great one, however, so I won't complain that a Bullock's didn't appear with the others.
The Summer Tanager, which winters in Mexico, does not migrate as far as the Scarlet which winters in South America. In fact, we had a Summer Tanager that wintered here in our yard. It was here before the January freeze and I was relieved to see it after the ice storm safe and sound.
As I look at the photo of this Summer Tanager, I can't tell what is in its beak. They were eating berries of the fiddlewood much of the time they were here, but I know they also eat insects, especially bees, and since this picture was taken in an esperanza which does not fruit, I think the bird may be eating a bee. Sometimes Summer Tanagers are called "beebirds" for their fondness of the insects.
This Summer Tanager is clearly eating a bee. I took the photo in September when the bird was migrating back from the north. As I sat on my upstairs deck the bird was literally snapping the bees with its heavy bill, producing a sound that from only about 8-10 feet away from me was surprisingly loud.
Although Orioles were quite numerous last week, even more abundant were the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. These bright, beautiful, but slightly comical-looking birds flocked around the feeders eating striped and black sunflower seeds as well as the fiddlewood berries that were ripening just behind our largest feeder. Sometimes berries or jelly stained their large beaks dark purple.
The amount of red on each male's breast varied. The one pictured above was distinctive because of the large patch of red on its breast and the additional red on the throat. The one below is probably a younger male, its rose-breast not yet as extensive as it will later be. Younger males also have brown feathers mixed in with the black on the back and wings. An older adult male's black is so black, and its white so white, that it is a distinctively beautiful black, red, and black bird.
The brown striping of the female Rose-breasted Grosbeak can be seen in the photo below, the bird on the left. She is sparrow-colored but all-grosbeak in size, shape, and beak. When she flies you might see a flash of buffy yellow underwings. (A female grosbeak in the winter here is likely to be a Black-headed rather than a Rose-breasted. Females of the two species look similar, though the male Black-headed is a handsome black and orange. A young male visited our feeders in late winter.)
I finally updated the list of yard birds I keep in the sidebar. So far this year we have seen 155 species in the yard. Many of them were added in the last week. Not only did we have a good number of species, but we also had large numbers of single species. At one time there were 13 grosbeaks on the small feeder by the upstairs backyard window while others dined at the front feeders. At another time I counted 9 orioles on the front deck. (Today it was obvious that migration is tapering when only a single grosbeak ate at the back feeder and only Hooded and Altamira Orioles, taking a break from nest-building, tore pulp from the orange halves.)
Orioles, grosbeaks, tanagers, thrushes, buntings, warblers! The highlight of spring migration is not a single bird, incredibly beautiful as many of them are; it is the amalgamation of colors, shapes, and sometimes even the songs of these traveling winged wonders. All year long we can enjoy the singular beauty of birds. But during migration we celebrate their collective beauty, perseverance, and strength.