Speaking of Nature: A slight delay

  • In 2020, the rose-breasted grosbeaks arrived at my house on May 3. This year they showed up on May 9 after a short delay due to weather. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON

For the Recorder
Published: 5/17/2021 9:14:58 AM

The migration of birds from the tropics and neotropics to the temperate zones of North America is one of the greatest wildlife spectacles that we can observe. Especially now, with such a wealth of technology at our fingertips, we have a greater and deeper understanding of this process than ever before. Go back 200 years ago, however, and things were much different. There was a definite understanding that the birds were appearing and disappearing, but exactly where they were going remained a mystery.

A classic example comes to us in the form of a bird called the barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis); a species native to the islands of the North Atlantic in the breeding season. These islands are so remote that very few people may have lived on their shores and thus, the birds’ whereabouts in the summertime remained largely unknown. Remember that this was long before the invention of telephones, radios, TVs and the Internet. The people of Europe were left to wonder where did the birds go … and … where did they come from when they returned?

Anxious for an answer to this question there were some people who invented a story to fill the gap in the human understanding of the world. There is a species of barnacle that grows on the rocks along the coast of Scotland that bear a superficial resemblance to the coloration of the geese. This, surely, must be the answer to the riddle. The birds flew out over the water, dove down into the water and transformed into barnacles during the summer. Then, with the arrival of autumn, the barnacles would loosen their grips on the rocks and floated back to the surface where they became birds once again. Simple, right?

I also heard another story from another part of the world where there was a particular tree that had fruits that looked like ducks. The thought was that the ripe fruit would fall from the tree and if the fruit fell into water it would transform into a “duck.” Again, it was a superficial resemblance of shape and color that allowed certain “experts” in the Middle Ages to make this fantastic leap of logic and please understand that I use the word “fantastic” to convey the meaning of utter “fantasy.”

It wasn’t until sometime in the 19th century that the mystery was finally solved with science. The geese do fly “out to sea,” but they are flying to Greenland and not diving down into the water to become barnacles. Science, ladies and gentlemen, is crucial! Put a metal band with numbers on the leg of a goose that hatched in Greenland and then find that same goose spending the winter in Scotland, and the whole barnacle story suddenly becomes a huge pile of bologna!

Fast-forward a couple hundred years and I am sitting in my house wondering where all the birds are. My brother had seen towhees in Maine, but I hadn’t seen any in my yard. Rose-breasted grosbeaks were at my mother’s house, but I hadn’t seen any at my house. What was going on? Well, I think there were two different things happening at the same time. I was working away from home during the week and the weather was very uncooperative on weekends.

Thus, it wasn’t until Mother’s Day (May 9) that conditions changed. I was home that Sunday and the weather was finally nice after a long period of unpleasantly cold and rainy conditions. Once the sun came out, the birds seemed to “pop” into existence. Were the grosbeaks growing out of the ground? Were the warblers wiggling out of the wetlands? No! These species all migrate at night (easily seen on radar) and they “pop” into existence just as family will suddenly arrive at your doorstep on Thanksgiving. The songs of these species are the doorbells that announce their arrival and they showed up after a short weather delay, just as airplanes may be temporarily grounded during bad weather.

Every year, I keep track of the dates of my first sightings for a long list of species. As with any list, there is an early date and a late date that defines a “window” of time during which you can expect these birds to show up. I am happy to report that all of the birds have arrived up right on schedule. Given the fact that these migrants have traveled so far since last summer (some flying as far away as Brazil and back), I would simply ask you to keep their safety in mind and keep your cats inside. Especially when the human world is so topsy-turvy now, it would be wonderful if we could keep these little ambassadors of “normal”  as safe as they can be.


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