Traveling Songlines of Beauty

By Jeremy Siegrist


(World Migratory Bird is Saturday May 11th)

The world is changing all around us. Here in southern Michigan we are in the midst of a mass movement of birds on their annual journey from their wintering grounds in the south to breeding grounds in the north. Some come from as far away as the Amazon jungle. The signs of this movement are all around if we gain the eyes to see and the ears to hear. In our area mid may is the peak of this great adventure. Every day you can head out to your nearest woodlot and see several new species of birds that the prevailing winds have just brought in. Some will stay and mate and raise their family here. But many are merely passing through on their way to the vast forests of the true north. This is all happening at the same time as peak bloom for most of our woodland spring ephemeral flowers. These birds seem to me like spring ephemeral blossoms of the sky. A rainbow filtering down through the tree tops towards the pretty palette of petals rising up from the soil. These avian visitors are clothed in their most colorful plumage, singing their hearts out, flitting through the moving background of our lives with the restless energy of the season. Seize the day!

Most of the small song birds migrate through the night. This helps avoid predators, and lets them take advantage of navigating by the stars (one of several navigational techniques they make use of also including: position of the setting sun, the earth’s magnetic field, instinct, and landmarks). As we sleep huge flocks, like midnight storm clouds, pass between us and the moon. As they fly they give short contact calls to each other to help stay together as a group. On quiet nights when flocks are flying close enough to earth you can hear these calls. People have actually been able to learn to identify birds by these flight calls that are much more subtle and unassuming than the more flashy and memorable songs at sunrise.

A little before day the migrants often stop to refuel on insects hiding in tree buds, and bark, and the leaf litter below. Before it is light enough to hunt easily they sing most vigorously. All the songs of all the species going on together can often be quite loud and are collectively known as the Dawn Chorus. Those who are just passing through I suppose are practicing their songs to be ready for the big show up in the boreal forests of Canada. Others have finally have arrived to their favorite summer spot and are singing to flirt and mark territory.

As the world turns and the day gets on, the singing quiets down as the migrants attempt to fatten up. At this time you can observe the unique feeding behaviors of each species. American Redstarts darting off branches and quickly returning after catching a fly, Black-and-White Warblers meandering upside down on tree trunks like a Nuthatch, Ovenbirds scratching up the leaf litter on the ground. Some of the most exciting species to find are those in the related group collectively knows as the wood warblers. They are mostly very colorful and very active. Meaning they move around a lot so they can be easy to notice once you know what you are looking for. Roger Tory Peterson called them the “butterflies of the bird world”. We have more of these little friends traveling in our area than most places in the world, but not too many of them stick around to breed in southern Michigan, so you either catch a glimpse in May or you’ve missed out until next time.

Today I was up early, out wandering around looking for birds when I was reminded of one spring more than a decade ago when I was living in Jackson and started taking walks to a little nearby pond every day to contemplate a writing project I was working on. I was trying to tap into my creativity, but I kept being distracted by the migrating waterfowl I was encountering (Most of the ducks migrate in very early spring, just after the ice melts from the water and the spring peepers begin singing). Watching these birds was more interesting that what I was working on so I started to bring along my Golden Guide to Birding that had been a Christmas present from my Grandpa (long time birder and Audubon Society member) and I learned to identify several ducks, such as Buffleheads, Mergansers, Scaups and Norther Shovelers. As these started to head north, I asked my Grandpa who I should be on the look out for next and he mentioned the warblers. I didn’t know anything about warblers, but with my field guide and cheap binoculars I attempted to find something out. Soon I met a Yellow Warbler down in a thicket of willows. He was the only warbler I got to know that year, but I was quite surprised to find how common Yellow Warblers are. They are actually one of the handfull of species who nest in southern Michigan. All my life I had walked by ponds and streams lined with willows as many of these birds sang “sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet”, but I did not have the ears to hear. In the years to follow I started to learn that dozens more of these striking species commonly filled our world for a few weeks in May. Blue-winged warblers, Ovenbirds, Northern Parulas, Common Yellowthroats, Magnolia Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers.

Many other types of birds can be seen during this migratory period as well including tanagers, thrushes, sparrows, wrens, orioles, shorebirds, hawks… It is a truly amazing season for birds that you don’t want to miss!

World Migratory Bird Day is this Saturday May 11th. This is also the date of the Washtenaw County annual Spring Migration Bird Count. A full day devoted to seeing as many birds as possible organized by township. If you are interested in participating contact us and we can help you find a group to go out with. It can be a way to start learning your birds.

There are many threats to migratory birds including habitat fragmentation, invasive species, light pollution, large man-made obstacles such as windmills, cell towers, and sky scrapers, and non-shade grown coffee plantations just to name a few. Plastic pollution is also a big problem, and awareness about that is the theme of this years World Migratory Bird Day. Here are some links to help you get informed: