For the Birds Radio Program: Summer Pleasures
Mid-July can be quiet, but birding pleasures abound.
In mid-July, foliage is thick and food for birds is abundant, whether they feed on bugs, seeds, fruits, nectar, or other animals. Except for parent birds, who are scrambling to keep their babies well-fed and protected from dangers, in summertime the livin’ really is easy. Birds are at their most abundant right now, the local population replenished with an abundance of babies. But despite the abundance, birds are suddenly trickier to find. A few species are singing steadily throughout the day, especially Red-eyed Vireos and Indigo Buntings, and some, like cardinals, sing on and off just on general principal. But more and more birds have lost interest in mating and defending territory as they follow their babies here and there and start molting into new plumage and getting their bodies fatted up and in shape for the arduous migration ahead. So mornings aren’t filled with as much song as they were just weeks ago, and without that territorial imperative to show off their best colors, birds aren’t sitting out in the open as much as they were, and there’s plenty of thick foliage to hide in.
The cherries in my backyard trees are ripening now, and I watch robins, cardinals, orioles and a host of other birds darting into the tree. The cherries are out the outside of the tree, but even when colorful birds are feasting on them, they manage somehow to disappear into the dappled leaves and I have to pay close attention to see them. Last week I discovered a fledgling Merlin above me, on a big, exposed pine branch, no foliage above it, but the little guy sat so still that if I hadn’t searched each branch of the tree, knowing it was there somewhere, I’d never have found it.
When I was a new birder, I didn’t have all the shortcuts I have now for finding birds. I wasn’t familiar with enough songs and didn’t have search patterns for noticing birds moving between branches or between trees, and so I spent a lot of time searching every inch of every branch for birds. With experience, I became very good at detecting new species by sound, and looking in the right places to find the birds I heard, and so my methods really did maximize the number of species I saw, especially during migrations. But ironically, this experience doesn’t help in summer, when birds are doing their best to be inconspicuous. It’s best in summer to go back to that novice method of searching through every branch. And this kind of close scrutiny helps you to discover bird nests and all kinds of interesting non-avian critters as well. And since many summer birds hunker down, sitting still on branches, when you do find them they often cooperate for photography, giving you a good opportunity to practice your digiscoping.
Even though according to astronomers we still have two more months of summer, the first fall migrants are starting to pass through. Some adult male hummingbirds are heading south now, and shorebirds are also starting to wing through. In less than a month, hawks will be starting to pass over Hawk Ridge in Duluth. Even if we’re not seeing prime birding yet, July and early August birding provide abundant riches. So get out there, spend more time looking through every branch, and enjoy our everyday local breeding birds and the little nuggets of rarities that crop up every now and then. Summer is short—enjoy it while it lasts.