The Early Birds - Summer World: A Season of Bounty - Bernd Heinrich

Summer World: A Season of Bounty - Bernd Heinrich (2009)

Chapter 4. The Early Birds

11 March 2006. IT’S ALMOST TIME FOR THE FIRST BIRDS to start coming back, and I’ve gone into a frenzy with handsaw, hammer, and nails, making nine birdhouses. I hung them around our house, thinking of wrens, tree swallows, and maybe bluebirds. My timing is right. By eight AM the first red-winged blackbirds arrive below in the beaver bog. I see four of them “on station” calling “oog-la-ee” from the tops of bushes and cattails. After an hour they fly up the hill to our house and land on our bird feeder. Last summer they fed here on sunflower seeds, which are not even visible from the outside and can be reached only through a little crack. These birds today act as though they are familiar with the feeder situation, and I suspect that some of them are the same bunch every summer. In the next several weeks they will come to the feeder every day, and they often come in small groups; they are still flock birds even though when they fly back down in the bog they spread themselves out. Down there they remain within visual and vocal contact of each other. Grackles also came back today—I saw three circle the bog. Later a relatively tame one came up to our house and perched on a big black cherry tree that shades the front of it. In hopes that it might be Crackle, whom we had rescued last summer from a nest that was crawling with mites and who became our friend and the favorite pet of the kids, I called “Crackle! Crackle!” He didn’t fly off. Instead, he wiped his bill on a twig as though he was distracted or undecided about what to do next.

EARLY BIRDS, THOSE THAT COME BACK WHEN SUMMER IS still only a promise, make me feel hopeful and rejuvenated. Like the wood frogs, they are a sign that life is off again to another great start. Through them I become aware of the risks and gambles that go with life, and appreciate the gift of living.

The first bird may get the worm, and a male bird also has a better chance for getting a good territory. But if being back early were easy, then all birds would do it. Necessarily, if some are early, then others are late, in the same way that there is no winning without losing. The benefits of being early have to be balanced by the costs, or all birds would be early. And there are great costs—the possibility of foul weather and lack of food, both of which kill.

As I’m starting to write this, again in mid-March but a year later (2007), it is time once more for the first migrants to return, but temperatures are dropping and the meteorologists predict twelve to eighteen inches of new snow over the next few days.

The forecast was correct. Then another snowstorm came shortly on the heels of that one. This year, many early birds would have starved. Flocks of dozens to hundreds of returning juncos were by the roadsides along the snowbanks in the Maine woods near my camp. I sank up to my thighs in the snow in the woods next to them where they would normally have been replenishing their spent fuel reserves. Later, in the summer, I saw none of these birds near where they are commonly summer residents.

The average timing of the different species necessarily differs. Bud-feeders and eaters of seeds and berries that stay on the trees can stay north all winter; but those, like the juncos, that feed on the bare ground must leave in the fall after the first snowfall and can return only after the snow melts. Those that feed on flying insects come next, and the caterpillar-hunters can’t risk coming back until after the trees have put on their leaves in late May or early June.

The Red-Winged Blackbirds. Flocks of red-winged blackbirds normally make their first probes into their northern breeding grounds during the first week of March. Twenty to thirty males perch close together high in trees along snowed-in bogs. They are then already fully attired in their ink-black nuptial plumage, with a fluorescent-crimson epaulet ready to display on each shoulder. However, as long as they are in the flock they almost completely hide their flashy badges with other feathers.

The flock, when it first comes to our marsh, ceaselessly chatters high in the top of a maple or some other tree that is still bare. Eventually one or two of the more eager or venturesome birds will fly down to the willows. Another one or two will follow. Then, for the first time, you hear their unmistakable vocal signature, the “oog-le-eee” that they give only at “home.” Then also, for the first time they display their garish crimson shoulder patches, which they have so far kept hidden. The males must be displaying for each other; the females won’t be back for weeks.

Within half an hour the whole flock may reassemble in a tree, and then fly off again. But from now on they will reappear almost every day, and each time these males will spread out in the bog and take up their stations at specific cattail stalks or viburnum bushes. Each day they come a little earlier from feeding areas in surrounding fields and woods where the snow has melted. By early April, when the pond ice melts, they begin to stay almost full-time, and by then (if not since years before), they probably know each other. Latecomers, who are probably strangers to the bog, are chased vigorously, not only by any one territory-holder, but also with the active participation of his neighbors.

Then one day the sun shines brightly. The ice melts. The first painted turtles come out of the mud and sun themselves on half-submerged logs, a bittern calls from his hiding place among a tangle of last years’ cattail fronds, and a snipe who seems only a speck high in the sky sounds forth in an unearthly whinnying. Now the redwing females, brown sparrow-colored birds, arrive and skulk close to the ground amid the tangled sedges and cattails. Then, after the sedge leaves start poking straight up through last year’s matted brown leaves, you may—if you are patient—see one of the unobtrusive females carrying in her beak a long-dead brown sedge frond. A nest is being built; ovaries are enlarging and eggs are ripening. One after another of four eggs, with a sky blue shell marked with purple and black squiggles and spots, will be sheathed within the oviduct. The female will sit in the nest for four mornings in a row, to lay for four days, one egg at a time. During those days, or just before, you see her making a “baby bird” display by vibrating her wings, and then you see a copulation.

The Woodcock. The woodcocks arrive on the first patch of earth that’s clear of snow, in late March or early April. This is also when the geese first return for a visit to see if the pond is free of ice. It usually isn’t, and they walk around on the ice and then leave, to try again a few days later.

The woodcocks (also called timberdoodles or wood snipes) put on spectacular flight displays that commence almost immediately after they return. A woodcock obtains its diet of angleworms by probing in the mud with its specially designed tool, a long bill with an overhang of the upper mandible at the tip. Do woodcocks probe at random? How or even if they feed when they first come back (when the ground often freezes solid nightly) is a mystery. Aside from food, what a male certainly needs on first returning is a lot of sky for his mating dance, and a little patch of open ground as a landing and launching platform.


Fig. 10. Portrait of a baby woodcock, showing its already well-developed bill, which is specialized to probe deeply in soft mud.

Words cannot do justice to the woodcocks’ sky dance. As a prelude to it, the woodcock, with a puffed-out chest that makes him look like a miniature bantam rooster, struts on his little patch of overgrown field and makes little hiccup sounds interspersed with “peents.” He gives the impression of a drunk on parade, but then he takes off like a rocket with whirring, whistling wings. Off he flies in a straight line upward, and then after gaining altitude over the treetops surrounding the clearing where he started, he begins to ascend, in ever tighter spirals, into the sky. You hear a high-pitched whistle—made possible by three stiffened feathers on each wing—pulsing to his steady wing beats, sixteen times per second. Then, after reaching an altitude where, although he is the size of a robin, he looks like a tiny dark speck, he interrupts his wing beats with rhythmic pauses and fills in this momentary silence with a high-pitched rhythmic vocal tweeting. The tweeting becomes louder and louder, and the wing beats are more pulsed and rapid, until a crescendo is reached, and at that point he begins his final approach earthward, diving from the height that had made him appear to be but a speck against the darkening sky. His wings still beat rapidly, but his sound-producing feathers are somehow decommissioned so that all you hear now is a dull flutter just before he lands. He settles down at almost at the same spot where he started, to once more resume strutting, hiccupping, and peenting.

The woodcock’s sky dance dazzles because it is both spectacular and subtle. I cannot imagine a summer beginning without it. The sky dance evokes memories of fishing trips to Enchanted Pond with my friend and mentor in Maine, Phil Potter. We camped along the shore opposite a great golden eagle nest on a cliff rising from the opposite shore, shortly after the ice went out. We sat next to a blazing campfire under the stars, and heard the birds’ sweet refrain in the background from somewhere far away. I’ve never tired of experiencing such raw enthusiasm that seems to knows no fatigue, no diminution. I’ve lain under the moon to hear the performance when I went to sleep and again as I woke up. Sometimes I’d find my sleeping bag covered with fresh snow, and I’d wonder if any of the woodcock hens might already be sitting on four yellowish tan eggs that are spotted and mottled with brown and magenta and blend in, like the hen’s back feathers, with last year’s dried leaves.

The Phoebe. A late March snowstorm earlier in the week dumped inches of snow on us, but a south wind is melting it fast. A robin sings, and the redwings are yodeling down in the bog. I expect the phoebe back at any time, too. The phoebe would be flying north now, aided by a wind at night from Alabama or Georgia, and powering itself to hurry along on the homeward journey back to a mere pinpoint on the continent—the house where I live and from where it had left to go south last September. Such feats of endurance and navigation are routine for many migrant birds, but how they might be accomplished still boggles my imagination, no matter how many “explanations”—such as magnetic orientation, use of landmarks, solar orientation, precise timing, and use of prevailing winds—are or could be involved.

I wake up in the gray dawn to the sounds I’ve long awaited: a loud, emphatic, endlessly repeated “dchirzeep, dchirzeep.” The bird’s enthusiasm is infectious. I jump out of bed and announce, “The phoebes are back!”

“The” phoebes leaves a lot unsaid. I have been intimate with phoebes since 1951, when I first met a pair on our farm in Maine, and in our outhouse admired their mud nest, which was garnished with green moss and contained several pearly white eggs. Although I once saw a phoebe nest on a cliff in Vermont, phoebes now nest almost exclusively on and in human dwellings. In the northeast, almost every homestead in or next to woods hosts a resident pair. Phoebes are a fixture of nearly every old farmhouse, barn, or sugar shack.

After I jumped out of bed I took a good look at our friend. There he (I assumed) was, perched on a branch of the sugar maple tree, about six feet from our bedroom window. He was dipping his tail up and down, a phoebe gesture signaling health and vigor. As I watched this sparrow-size bird from up close, I noted his black cap, white throat bib, and dark gray back. He stretched a wing and shook his fluffy plumage, and I felt transported, as if into another being. I experienced a glow of warmth and satisfaction, as anyone would when confronting a marvel of creation that magically appears on one’s doorstep at almost precisely the time that one predicted it would come.

Already in the gathering dawn the phoebe is inspecting the two potential nest sites on the house: a one-inch shelf under the roof near the back door, and the bend of a drainpipe near an upstairs window. Now, as he inspected each of these sites, he was making soft churring calls and excitedly fluttering his wings.

On the next dawn he called continuously in the typical phoebe song—a short “fee-bee” alternating with “fee-bay,” at his typical tempo of about thirty phrases per minute, repeated with clocklike regularity. He called from the very top of a big maple tree, then flew over the forest in the direction of our neighbors’ house. I assumed this was a male recruiting a mate. Indeed, before the end of the day there were two birds around the house, and two days later they chased off a third. Both were then still inspecting the two potential nest sites.


Fig. 11. Phoebe at its nest on a board I put up inside our chicken shed. The speckled egg is one that a cowbird had dumped in.

By the third morning the pair were paying particular attention to just one nest site. They had chosen the thin shelf under the roof by our back door, which we use as our main entrance.

Further nesting progress was then suddenly interrupted. For a whole week there were dark skies and a drizzly rain that turned to snow. Both birds became silent, and then after a couple of days they became lethargic and fluffed themselves out. Soon their wings drooped rather than being folded tightly over the back as they had been before. There were no more flies to be had, at least not by the phoebe’s usual mode of hunting, which is to sally forth from a favorite perch to snag those buzzing by. There was no chance that any insect would fly by in a snowstorm. I wondered if the phoebes would survive. To my great surprise, one of the birds hopped like a sparrow onto the snow-free ground under my parked pickup, perhaps to try something different. It also hovered in front of the suet I had set out for woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees, and eventually fed from it. How did it know this was food? There could be no genetic programming in phoebes to feed on suet. Maybe they had taken their cue from the other birds they saw feeding there—a possibility that could account for the behavior of many different kinds of birds with vastly different foraging techniques who all exploit the exotic food and feeders we provide for them.

When the weather improved, the phoebe pair again looked and sounded cheery. As before, they churred and at the same time fluttered their wings in apparent shivers of excitement when they perched at their chosen nest site. The phoebe’s song would from now on be repeated thousands of times like a mantra, and it brightens my day even before my morning coffee. I don’t know why a song that is as monotonous, unmusical, and undemonstrative as this one still has such a cheering effect on me. It can’t be the virtuosity of the performance. The phoebe is one of the passerines, or perching birds, the most successful (that is, the most diverse and numerous) on the planet. The passerines are divided into the songbirds—technically, oscines—and their less musical brethren, the sub-oscines, which include the phoebe. It’s a seemingly plain bird in all respects.

Although phoebes are not known as vocal virtuosos, they make many different sounds and gestures that are related to context and that evoke emotion. When “on territory” they begin calling vigorously before sunup, and they then become almost silent half an hour later. When mates find a nest site and show their enthusiasm with soft comfort calls, they come to a consensus or agreement with each other. When the adults start to build the nest, they also “chip” to each other, occasionally throwing in an excited “zeebit” or a “chirreep.” Similarly, the laying of the first egg and the hatching of the first young both induce excited vocalization. Several times I have heard excited “singing” at midday, and realizing that there was something unusual, I checked and found that the young were starting to hatch. Coincidence? Possibly. I have also heard similar excited singing after I removed a chipmunk that they were mobbing, which had been trying to get at the nest. There may be a common connection between all these very different events that induced the same emotions.

The young’s begging “cheeps” in the nest are barely audible to us (presumably the low volume reduces the chance that they will become an advertisement to predators, since birds in safe nest sites, such as woodpecker young in solid tree holes, are almost always continuously noisy). After the young leave the nest the parents “chip” and the young “cheep” in answer, but they call more loudly now so that they can be found and fed. Their varied vocalizations are not words. They convey emotions that I may not feel as they do, but that I can understand.

In the first week of April the presumed female (males and females have identical garb) began carrying mud in her bill from a puddle in the driveway. She plastered it onto the thin ledge, the edge of a board, under our back porch. She also brought back green moss from the woods, and reinforced, decorated, and camouflaged the nest with it. Later, after the nest cup was finished, she picked up stray dog hair and grass fibers to line it, and then in the last week of April she laid one immaculate white egg a day, until she completed a clutch of five. By this time she had become used to our comings and goings and would rarely flush from the nest. The eggs hatched after a two-week incubation. The yellowish pink chicks were covered with only a few sparse plumes of white fluffy down.

By early June, when the young were almost ready to leave the nest, I saw one parent come with a big grasshopper in its bill. Only one baby gaped; the brood must have been well fed. Then there was a downpour, and immediately afterward I heard an animated “phee-bee” song. But this one was not delivered from a perch near the nest, as usual, nor was it coming at dawn, the usual time for song. It was, instead, coming near dusk. I looked up and there he was like a skylark or a woodcock circling high in the sky, but only for a few moments. Almost immediately in this rare outburst he set his wings stationary, circled, and dived back down.

At six o’clock the next morning I heard a fluttering commotion of excited “chips,” and saw one of the young tumbling out of the nest. It caught the air with its wings, and awkwardly fluttered off into the woods. One of the parents was flying all around and with it, continuing to make excited “chip” calls. The other young had apparently already been launched, similarly. I found one of them perched on the ground under my truck. By afternoon all was quiet around the house—no more phoebe activity. However, the next day I found the whole brood of five stubby-tailed youngsters lined up on a dry twig under the leafy bough of an ironwood tree a short way into the woods.

Already at the next dawn one of the adults was chittering back at the old nest. It was expressing renewed interest in starting the season’s second nesting cycle. Two days later the female was repairing and relining the nest to get it ready for her second clutch. Meanwhile, as she was incubating, her mate took on the responsibility of feeding the fledged young. These young fledged on 11 July.

In 2005 we moved to another house down the road. It reeked of cat piss, and it probably never had a phoebe; there was no phoebe ledge for a nest. My wife attended to replacing the rugs in the house and I attended to placing a phoebe ledge outside. I took three little pieces of board and nailed them each in a different place under the roof, to give the birds a choice of nest sites. As we hoped and expected, a phoebe pair did arrive during the first spring and inspected the nest sites I had provided. They chose the shelf next to the garage door.

Over the next two years these phoebes (probably two different pairs) made four attempts in that nest, but none of them was successful. Brown-headed cowbirds parasitized the nests with eggs, and then the newly hatched young were raided by chipmunks who had been attracted by the bird feeder, and who had somehow managed to climb the wall at the nesting spot.

After the successive failures of nests on the house I put up a shelf deep in the chicken shed, and it was quickly discovered. I was there when one of the birds found it; the bird cheeped and chattered excitedly, and I knew it liked what it had found in this new, very hidden, protected place. The pair soon produced five young there, but then one of the adults disappeared before they fledged. The other continued to feed them, but apparently not enough, because the cool wet weather that spring was not conducive to flies. One by one of the young died. Several fell out of the nest, as though trying to escape before starving. The next year, 2006, set records for rain, which hit just when the young were larger and needed much food. Again they starved, this time despite care by both parents, as did also the neighbors’. I removed the dead, and the birds then raised a second clutch in the same nest; this clutch fledged in early July. A second pair arrived then as well, and they laid a clutch of eggs in the ready-made but vulnerable and previously unsuccessful nest by the garage. Even before the clutch was finished (at the third egg) I heard the strained nuances of the adults’ alarm calls. They attracted me, and as I suspected, the nest was once again empty, probably just raided by a chipmunk.

In 2007 the pair started refurbishing the same hidden nest in the chicken shed on 6 May. Egg laying was delayed because of cold and rain, but I eventually felt five eggs in the nest by reaching up and into it and feeling them with my fingertips. On 1 June I heard the adults announce the eggs’ hatching, and the young fledged on 13 June. A cowbird was and had been around for most of this period, but I thought that the phoebes’ nest had been safe. I did not expect a cowbird to come into the chicken shed for a nest tucked onto a ledge in a dark corner, so I had not even bothered to get a mirror to look into the nest. However, to my great surprise, in the days immediately after fledging I saw only one of the phoebe pair, and it was feeding a baby cowbird. A pair of cowbirds were then still around the premises. I never saw the baby phoebes, and I assume the male left with them while the female and “her” cowbird baby stayed.

The baby cowbird was still following the phoebe around, and persistently begging from her, until at least 30 June. However, at dawn on 18 June a loud singing refrain signaled that the male was back. I suspect he came back after having left the young on their own. Two days later I found the first egg (eventually there would be three) of the second clutch, again in the same nest. Even after the eggs were laid, the presumed female was still feeding the cowbird, and only occasionally incubating. It was not until 29 June that she was consistently incubating her eggs during the daytime. I suspect, therefore, that she was not free to incubate full-time until the male was back and able to feed her. Now the cowbird followed the male around. It looked as though the male was trying to escape from this nest parasite and its almost constant begging for more food. (A pair of phoebes reused the same nest the next spring. It again was parasitized with a cowbird egg.)

After the second brood fledges, our phoebes usually become almost silent. They still hang around the house and we occasionally see them until mid-September. After that we miss them, and we look forward with anticipation to seeing them the next summer. The phoebe connects me to the miracle of returning at all from I know not where, and to the mystery of I know not how.