Birds : Hot fun
With the Fourth of July now safely in the rear view mirror and fledgling "baby" birds seemingly everywhere, there are not so subtle changes going on in the natural world. Most noticeable in fields and woods is the rapid and pronounced decrease in bird song. Recovering from the exhausting ordeal of defending a territory, courting, mating, providing for a brood of young birds - all the while on the alert for a wide variety of predators - the adult birds are eating, resting, and growing new feathers. There is no longer any imperative need to sing, so most birds just let loose a few songs at dawn and dusk or whenever the urge strikes them. Perhaps now they just sing for fun.
Making use of abundant summer food supplies, all birds are taking in lots of calories. For virtually all the warblers and flycatchers, all the Neotropical migrants, time is short. Having completed (we hope successfully) their mission of creating more of their kind - the need to breed, if you will - they have only a few short weeks to replace their worn out feathers and store critical energy reserves in the form of subcutaneous fat deposits that will power them during the upcoming migration.
A bird's life and schedule, starting with its daily routine and incredible speed with which it does everything, burning through life, makes a human look very sloth-like. Sloths are remarkable mammals that live on large trees (called arboreal) in Central and South America. They move super slowly along tree trunks and out in the branches and are hard to find and see precisely because they move so slowly or are still. They really blend in their surroundings and move impossibly slowly. In comparison to mammals (excepting small high-strung shrews), birds make most look as though they are in slow motion.
One of the best ways to find and see birds in this season is by getting out early in the morning. Although this is not always possible or practicable, it allows the observer to enjoy maximum bird activity and the least human disturbance of any time of day. Another great way to observe birds, especially to observe their behavior, is by doing a big sit.
Find an area with noticeable bird activity, and then find a nice unobtrusive spot to sit: along the edge of a bubbling brook, by an edge habitat at the border between field and forest, or atop a hill with good views and lots of flowers. Preferably the spot you pick will not be in a patch of poison ivy, in a cloud of mosquitoes, in the middle of a red ant mound, or near an underground hive of yellow jackets. Then pay attention to what is going on around you. Binoculars are essential equipment for any big sit. As one would naturally assume, rapid movements and loud noises do not enhance the experience.
Photo by E. Vernon Laux
Once you are settled into a comfortable spot, become one with your surroundings. Take note of what is the most common bird and try to see what they are eating. When sitting, an observer becomes essentially invisible to birds and they go on about their business. A patient observer will see birds preening their feathers, bathing, taking dust baths, and interacting with other birds of many kinds. Indulging in a big sit is a most pleasant summer activity. I liken it to a form of meditation that allows one to interact in a non-intrusive way with the natural world wherever one ventures.
It appears that for a number of reasons, shorebirds that nest in the eastern regions of Arctic North America have had a poor breeding season. We know this by the significant numbers of adult shorebirds that are already appearing on tidal flats around the region. While summer has just begun for most human inhabitants, it is over and time to get south for these globe-trotting migrants. By the end of July most adult shorebirds will have already passed south of New England.
Clay-colored sparrows looked like they were going to breed at Katama a few years ago. To the best of our knowledge they did not. However, this year, not far away at the Massachusetts Military Reservation (aka Otis) on the lower Cape, there are at least three pairs nesting this year and there were two pairs last year. It appears this species should be expected to breed on the Island in the not-too-distant future.
Completely unexpected and off-the-wall are a pair of merlins that appear to be defending a territory and perhaps attempting to nest on Chappaquiddick. While it seems apparent that this species of small falcon is increasing and slowly expanding its range, this is wholly without precedent. The species has only recently been found to nest in northern Maine and perhaps on some mountains in northern Vermont and New Hampshire. It has never even been known to attempt nesting in this state, so this is a fantastic occurrence.
Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky.