Wild Side: The seasons are turning for birds

‘The show is over; some birds have left, the rest have grown less conspicuous.’

A chickadee on the deck. —Matt Pelikan

In nature, as in anything else, arrivals and beginnings are relatively easy to spot. One day in early spring, birds appear that weren’t there the day before, and you know that spring migration has begun. Around the Fourth of July, dowitchers, absent for several weeks, turn up on the mudflats, and you know that the wave of birds has changed direction and fall migration is under way.

Endings and departures, though, happen more stealthily. You may know, let’s say, that yellow warblers are due to depart. But you never know if the one you’re watching is your last one for the year. It’s a question that can only be answered in retrospect. In mid-August, we’re at that point for the Vineyard’s breeding birds: Someday soon, you’ll see your resident catbirds for the last time — and you won’t even know it.

To be sure, there is still a lot of summer to go. And in our yard, there are some birds that don’t seem ready to quit. A robin has been ripping fiber out of a jute planter hanging over our deck, flying up and out of sight into a cedar tree. Is there a real nesting attempt going on, or just residual breeding behavior, prompted by habit and lingering hormones? There’s probably still time for our robins to pull off one more clutch. (If they do, it’ll be their third of the year.) But this behavior, so unambiguous if you see it in May, has a puzzling, off-balance feel in early August.

The orioles, in contrast, are long gone; I don’t recall the last time I saw or heard one around our yard, because at the time it didn’t seem important. But they’ve left their territory here, and either moved South or at least begun wandering around the Island in preparation for departure. Any orioles I see from here on into winter can be presumed to be transients from someplace else.

Great crested flycatcher is another migratory species, conspicuous all summer long, that disappeared sometime over the past couple of weeks. Again, I don’t recall the last one, and I don’t know if the birds that bred in my neighborhood have headed South or are merely staging for migration somewhere else on the Island. Perhaps they’re even still around, just not wasting time and effort on vocalizing. But in any case, a dramatic shift in their behavior took place without my noticing.

For many other species, migration isn’t on the agenda. But even for the Island’s resident bird species, late summer is a time of transition. Blue jays, absent from our yard since about mid-May, are suddenly back. I guess they’ve called it quits for the breeding season, and are beginning to flock up and explore for suitable winter quarters. Our chickadees are still tending their last set of young, two noisy fledglings with large appetites. But soon they’ll lose their territorial impulse, join up with another family or two of their conspecifics, and begin making plans for the winter.

Our song sparrows are still here, and will probably remain through the winter. The male, always bold, still takes his daily bath in the small dish of water I put on the deck railing. But he’s singing less now, often not bothering to respond when the song sparrow down the street begins to sing. And the female is hardly ever visible. With no young to feed anymore, they’re foraging less, and they have nothing they feel they need to defend. Again, the change has been gradual, and I can’t pinpoint the time when I last saw one of their fledglings. But slowly and steadily, they’ve become different birds, less active, less aggressive. 

For me, it’s a bittersweet time of year. During late spring and early summer, our local breeding birds seem like neighbors, always evident, always keeping tabs on my location and activity. And watching their behavior as they court, defend their turf, build nests, mate, and raise young is central to my summer. Suddenly I realize the show is over; some birds have left, the rest have grown less conspicuous. And while I know there is an entire autumn migration ahead with waves of transient birds to watch, it’s not the same: Those are somebody else’s birds, not mine, and they won’t remain long enough for me to get acquainted with them.

I’m about to turn 65 as I write this, so the annual cycle of the seasons is not new to me. But still, these subtle fadings in the natural world catch me by surprise. Changes happen while I’m waiting for change to happen; I only recognize endings by the holes they leave after they’re done. The summer is already old when it begins, and these mid-August days, hot though they may be, hold the seeds of winter. You’d better pay attention. Life is short.