Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

A Birder Looks Forward to Migration
April 22, 2017
By Steve Grinley

     It was ten years ago when Doug Chickering of Groveland shared his insights of the pending spring migration. As you read it again here, you might realize that as much as things have changed, how much they really stay the same:

     “This April nor’easter has come and gone and left retribution in its passing. Fields, streams and rivers are flooded, and everywhere there is the forest detritus as the fury of the storm separated the weak from the strong. The storm with its passing has also revealed the first breath of true spring. In our backyard, there is suddenly a wide wash of green in the grass and the lilac bush is showing its first nascent buds. Elsewhere, the crocuses have gone past peak and the forsythias are coming on. Although they are late, I fully expect that those first scouts of spring – pine warbler, palm warbler and Louisiana waterthrush – will soon appear at their appointed locations.

     “So now we can start to seriously think of the spring migration. It appears to me that the migration season can be divided into three parts; each with its distinguishing characteristics and mood. The height of the migration takes up nearly all of May, and the dominant tone is high excitement mixed with an slight aching sense of loss. No matter how successful and brilliant the days birding when you pull up Massbird in the evening and read of what others are seeing there is the unmistakable gnawing conviction that you are missing something. No matter that you realize that you can’t be everywhere at six o’clock in the morning, and no matter that you had killer looks at the Cape May and golden-winged warbler, you become haunted by the fact that out there some lucky birder had a white-eyed vireo in Westport or a hooded warbler in the Dell at Mount Auburn, or a blue grosbeak at the Beech Forest in Truro and you didn’t. Birding in May is paradise tainted by longing. So many birds so little time.

     “And when you slowly become aware that female redstarts are the dominant specie in Hellcat on Plum Island and the only likely target left is mourning warbler, you have entered into the third stage of the migration. It is inevitable that this stage will be accompanied by a slight feeling of melancholy. The peak is over, the birds are disappearing into their nesting routine and it’s going to be a long, long time before May rolls around again.

     “The opening stage of migration in its way can be the best. The early part of spring, still haunted by traces of winter is filled with a mood of great expectation and hope. For me, no birds are more emblematic of this part of the season that blue-gray gnatcatcher, solitary vireo and black-and-white warbler. These are the birds that I think of when this part of the season approaches. These are the birds that fill my heart with a particular delight. I make no claim of universality in these feelings. On the contrary, I am sure that there are other birds that fulfill this role in other birders’ hearts.

     “These days, in the middle of April when I am at work, standing by my machine and contemplating the days in the field that lie in the immediate future, I am able to place my imagination where I can nearly see and hear them. The gnatcatcher darting furtively from limb to limb, tail erect, whispering his steady staccato call. A call so quiet that there are times when it takes a few seconds for me to become aware that I am hearing it. The black-and-white warbler, wet forest, still nearly bare of foliage also quickly moving and occasionally calling. The warbler’s hoarse slightly wheezy call sounding like he is being squeezed.

     “And the solitary vireo, slow deliberate, almost sedentary in his habits. He hops to a branch to pause and tilt his head in contemplation before hopping again to a different branch. And all three crisp and clean in their new plumage stand out in the still dull background of early spring. I haven’t seen them yet, but soon I will and can hardly wait. There will be many moments to come where I will be enchanted by the brilliant events of a migration, but right now I am thinking mostly about my three spring birds.”

     The migration has certainly begun this year. The gnatcatchers are back at Pikes Bridge road in West Newbury, solitary (now called blue-headed) vireos are singing at Crooked Pond in Boxford, and black & white warblers are arriving in the area as well. I hope Doug is catching up with his three spring birds.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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4 years of service to the birding community! 
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