Speaking of Nature: Welcoming spring arrivals

  • North America’s smallest sparrow, the chipping sparrow, arrived late this year. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Bill Danielson caught a glimpse of a male Baltimore oriole as it explored the flowers of his cottonwood tree on May 7. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson


For the Recorder
Monday, May 14, 2018

Spring has been something a little different in 2018. When I look back through my records, I see that there has been a great deal of fluctuation in the temperatures from year to year, but the general “feel” of this year’s version of spring has definitely been something unusual. This makes the annual arrival of the migrant birds particularly interesting. Let me run through a week’s worth of data to illustrate my point.

Saturday, April 28 was a fairly typical spring day. The temperature in the morning was 51 degrees and the sun was shining. I stepped outside to enjoy the morning and found myself contentedly wandering up the driveway, lured by a bird song that I knew well, but desiring to lay eyes on the little minstrel responsible. When I reached the road, I turned right and ambled past my neighbor’s house and there, in a small tree, I saw the brown thrasher. The bird was overdue and managed to set a tie for its latest arrival in the past 10 years.

After having a very pleasant chat with my neighbor when he came out to get the morning paper, I headed back to my own yard and heard another song that I knew well. This time, the bird was singing from the white pines that line the road in front of the house, and I eventually caught sight of the little chipping sparrow that was giving it all he had. April 28 was the latest arrival date for this species in my yard, but only by a day or two.

By 3 p.m. that afternoon, the sun had given way to clouds and a light sprinkle was falling. By 8 p.m., I could hear spring peepers calling, but the temperature had fallen to 50 degrees and they sounded a little sluggish. I heard the year’s first thunder later that night, but by the time Sunday morning rolled around, the world had changed a bit. At 6 a.m., the temperature was only 40 degrees and my entry described the morning as “quite crappy.”

Still, while sitting at the desk by my kitchen window, I managed to catch sight of an osprey of all things. This particular species is so unusual in my yard that I don’t even have a slot for it in my “spring arrivals” spreadsheet. However, there is a slot for the field sparrow and while out filling the feeders, I did hear one of those birds up by my mailbox.

The low temperature for April 29 was 35 degrees. The lowest temperature that I have recorded for that date over the past eight years was 29 degrees. The day’s high temperature was 46 degrees, which is the lowest high temperature I have recorded. What really set the tone, however, was the fact that by 6 p.m., it was snowing heavily. That had a powerful impact on the psyche. Would this interminable winter never end?

Fast forward to the next weekend and Saturday, May 5 started off with overcast skies and a temperature of 50 degrees. Conditions quickly yielded to a bright, cloudless sky with temperatures reaching up toward 70. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, but I was not at home for most of it. Still, at about 4 p.m., I heard my first yellow warbler of the year and, as I walked out onto my deck, I saw the zippy silhouette of a hummingbird take flight from the top of one of my lilac bushes. The yellow warbler was right on schedule. The hummingbird was the earliest I’ve seen in the past 10 years.

Sunday, May 6 was another crummy day. At 7 a.m., it was 58 degrees and gently raining, and by 4 p.m., it was 57 degrees and still gently raining. This was irrelevant to the birds, however, because the conditions on Saturday had been ideal for migrating. On that Sunday morning, I saw or heard my first wood thrush, green heron, gray catbird, barn swallow, Baltimore oriole and indigo bunting of the year. It wasn’t until the following day, which was sunny and warmer, that I was able to get a quality photo of the oriole.

The timing of migration is a curious thing. I’m sure that each bird makes its own decision as to when to move in any given year, but there must come a point when a brief period of clear weather forces the issue. Sometimes the birds arrive early, sometimes they arrive late and sometimes they arrive exactly on schedule regardless of the weather.

A prime example is the American woodcock. The year 2018 has not been kind to these birds in my neighborhood. I heard my first woodcock of the year on April 6, which was a very cold 20-degree morning. The bird gave a couple half-hearted calls at 5:45 a.m., but it was a school day and I couldn’t linger. On Saturday, April 7, I awoke to a world covered in three inches of fresh snow and the high temperatures remained in the low 40s for most of the following week. I haven’t heard a woodcock since.

There are still many slots on my “spring arrivals” spreadsheet that are waiting to be filled. If you keep your own lists and would like to compare your data to mine, you can visit my website and click on the “Migratory Arrivals” page, which gives a running journal of first sightings going back several years. In the meantime, keep your eyes and ears peeled for the sights and sounds of freshly arrived migratory birds. I think we’ve seen the last of the snow for the year, and the rest of spring may settle into a more normal and predictable pattern.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.