Migrating Marvels and Bird Identification

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Migrating Marvels and Bird Identification

They returned to our forests and fields right on time. Despite the chilly temperatures in May, there can be no escaping the turn of the seasons and our annual trip around the sun. The earth warms, green leaves unfold to face the life-giving sun, and the early morning dawn chorus of winged songsters announces the joy of nesting season. From my bedroom window, I recognize the robin’s early morning melody, always the first to welcome the day and announce his territorial and amorous intentions. He is joined by the cardinal song, which, like the robin, offers both a morning wakeup call and a twilight goodnight tune.

As the daylight brightens, and I head to the barn for morning chores, I hear more birds joining the chorus and sunrise celebration. I pause in the doorway to listen and instantly recognize the songs of our year-round avian neighbors, chickadee, tufted titmouse, nuthatch and blue jay. But who is that rummaging among the apple blossoms in the old Baldwin tree behind the barn? I think I recognize the song, but it’s been several months since I’ve heard it. I see the flash of orange and black among the white-pink flowers and know the Baltimore oriole has returned from its cold-season home. I wonder if this one traveled as far as the northern tip of South America or spent the winter months in Florida?

Other season migrators joining the Baltimore oriole have returned to the woods and fields around our house. Some I recognize immediately, such as the wood thrush singing its flute-like melody from the thick woods across the road. Others, such as the diminutive warblers, are species I am unfamiliar with and my ears are not trained to recognize their varied songs.

Cornell Lab for Ornithology Merlin Bird Identification

A few months ago my brother Rob, an avid birder since childhood, showed me a free app for my phone that quickly identifies birds by recording their song.s With this handy tool, a whole new appreciation and awareness opened for me about migratory birds that have returned to nesting grounds in our region, or are passing through, heading further north.

Developed by the Cornell Lab for Ornithology, the Merlin bird identification app has details about more than 10,000 species. It also includes a photo ID tab and a sound ID tab. This spring I am using the sound ID tab to record bird songs in the immediate area. The app stores each recording with a list of birds identified in each recording. I have discovered many birds this spring, even though they are hidden from view in the brush, shrubs and leaves of the trees surrounding our house.

Here’s a short list of the birds I recorded and identified in only 15 minutes in my back yard. We keep a wren nesting box that is now active with nest and eggs, and along with the house wren the Merlin app picked up the song of the Carolina wren, a diminutive bird with a loud “teakettle-teakettle” song. Several warblers have also been picked up including the black-and-white, yellow and pine warblers, as well as a Tennessee warbler. The latter was passing through enroute to breeding grounds in northern Maine, the Maritimes and Canada. The rose-breasted grosbeak is recognizable by sight with its brilliant black head and back, white underside and splash of rose-red on its breast. To me, its call is like a robin but is now easily identified with the aid of the Merlin app. Other birds recorded in that short 15 minutes were eastern phoebe, eastern towhee, hermit thrush and wood thrush. Of these migrating songbirds, the wood thrush travels the furthest and spends the winter in central America.

Challenges Facing Migratory Birds

My enjoyment in using the Merlin bird identification app followed a Christmas gift from my son David of the book, “A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds,” by Scott Weidensaul. Weidensaul details the new science and technology available to ornithologists and other scientists in understanding the amazing physiological feats of birds that cross oceans and fly thousands of miles between hemispheres on their extraordinary annual migration.

Weidensaul also examines the challenges facing many birds due to habitat loss and forest fragmentation in both their winter residences and nesting grounds. Unfortunately, the population of our migratory birds, especially the “neotropical” migrants that breed in the north but winter in Latin America and the Caribbean, has declined dramatically. It is not just habitat loss in the winter grounds but also in their breeding grounds in the north.

Our forest-interior species, such as wood thrushes, scarlet tanagers and warbler species, breed in deep contiguous forests and nest near or on the ground. The fragmentation of our North American forests from roads, power lines and development has increased in the past decades, which allows predators not typically found in deeper forests, such as domestic cats, racoons, blue jays, crows, skunks and opossums, easy access to the ground nesting birds.

For some of our migrating birds the challenges are significant, but the science of bird migration has led to a new age of knowledge and understanding of the complex lives of the winged marvels inhabiting our world. For those interested in learning more about the birds singing outside your house, their migratory feats of wonder and critical challenges, I recommend both Merlin and “A World on the Wing.”

The miraculous flights of our migrating birds are astonishing and should be appreciated for the feats of strength and endurance they require. Each spring when I first hear a pine warbler, wood thrush or oriole, I wonder how many miles they flew to arrive in my back yard. Our avian neighbors inspire a deep fascination for many of us. Perhaps it’s because they are so visible in our daily lives. With each fall departure and spring arrival, they represent the turn of the seasons and the endless cycle of life.

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I hope you’ll join me, and together let us care for, enjoy and pass it on.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at 860-774-3300 or by email at bill@tlgv.org

Exploring The Last Green Valley – June 4, 2023

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the following article.  The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.




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