The Naturalist's Journal

If observers look down, they can spot some spring wildflower gems, the Dwarf Ginseng (above) among them.


In a typical early-ish May, the Journal topic-of-the-week would, no doubt, encompass all things avian. The spring migration would be in full force, and every day would be rich with new discoveries. There’d be a host of different male warblers flashing their resplendent breeding plumage and singing their distinctive courtship songs, and there’d be the amusing specter of the Naturalist trying to focus on the songbirds while thumbing through his field guides and attempting to remember the notes of each warble and connect them to the identity of the singer. And the same pattern would be repeated with larger birds, from grosbeaks to vireos, thrushes to sparrows, and every other avian music-maker in between.

But this month has not lived up to recent historical expectations, and the woods and fields are, as I scan my notes on May 2nd and 3rd, curiously quiet and empty of color of both the songbird and the vegetation variety. Blame it on the recent spell of almost unnaturally wet and chilly weather, which, most likely, will soon pass. Indeed, by the time this edition of the Journal is published, we’ll probably have had that strong cold front we ornithophiles have been waiting for barrel through the region and send hordes of migrants north to their breeding grounds. With any luck, there’ll soon be colorful birds to watch and listen to: the ones setting up nurseries here and the ones just pausing in their travels for a while before moving on.

Whenever the Main Event arrives—according to many bird biologists, the migration phenomenon itself is under serious threat, so here’s hoping the lateness is not a harbinger of something far, far worse—I’ll be out there to document it. While I wait, however, I can note that we’re not completely without new arrivals—or old residents engaged in the kind of behavior that migration brings to the table... or the treetops, meadows, sandbars, or anyplace else birds use as a, well, boudoir.

For example, the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds came back to the feeder on the afternoon of Saturday, April 27th. This arrival date is actually, in terms of ridge history, a little early, since, for many of the years we’ve lived here—we set up shop in 1984—the RTHs returned from their southern “vacation” lands in Central America and Mexico on or about the 4th of May. The date is known in the Ocean State as Rhode Island Independence Day, but I don’t think the hummingbirds came back to the ridge to celebrate. Rather, the timing had to do with the blooming of a favorite nectar source known as the Wild Columbine, a native wildflower whose exquisite red blossoms typically opened for business in the neighborhood of that date. Just to make sure that the RTHs had sustenance after a long and amazing journey—some of the pint-sized birds fly across the entire Gulf of Mexico in one marathon trip—I always set up a nectar feeder as part of my May 1 birthday celebration. That way, I didn’t have to face the guilt trip that resulted when a Ruby-throated male—the guys usually arrive first—came back early and found that, for any number of reasons, the columbines had yet to fully flower.

Since I haven’t banded the birds in residence here, I can’t say definitively that we have the same returnees, or their kids, or grandkids, coming back, but there’s a behavior that the RTHs engage in that suggests past familiarity with our feeding set-up.

We’ve long put the nectar feeder in the same place in front of the kitchen window, and when it isn’t there, a very peeved hummer hovers in the place where he apparently remembers the food source ought to be, and when nothing instantly appears, he taps on the window with his beak to get my attention. I’m nothing if not well trained—as an eldest Jewish son who is neither a doctor nor a rabbi, guilt is in my DNA— and in short order after hearing this reminder, I’ll have the feeder filled and ready.

As the world has warmed up, the arrival dates are now about a week earlier than they had been when we arrived on our present ridge. The flights are shorter as well, since some of the RTHs now overwinter in the American Southeast, and avoid the perilous Gulf journey altogether. So, if frosts are truly out of the picture, I’ll have the nectar on tap by the beginning of the last week of April. The migrants will be happy, and, as a plus, I won’t have to deal with that unpleasant feeling of having let yet another critter down.

The male hummer drank his fill and returned time and time again to build up his energy. But later that afternoon, I was surprised to find two females on the feeder. Maybe they all arrived together, maybe they came on separate flights.

Whatever their travel arrangements, they’ll soon be engaged in the serious business of starting a new generation, with the males working through all the steps of their intricate courtship choreography and the females searching the ridge for dandelion or thistle down which, over the course of several days to about a week, she’ll knit together with spider silk into a tiny nest that she then adorns with camouflaging bits of moss and lichen.

The RTHs are hardly alone in all this breeding behavior, and sometimes it can get almost absurdly public, as I discovered during a recent shopping trip to the Big City, which, in our case, is Westerly. With the strike over, I was back at Stop and Shop, and when I’d finished buying groceries and was putting them in the car, I happened to look at the runways of the Westerly Airport and noticed something odd: a large, dark shape in the middle of the tarmac. Fortunately, I never leave home without the appropriate gear at the ready, so I quickly had the binoculars out and the telephoto zoom lens attached to the camera. There, during a hiatus between incoming and outgoing flights, an enormous Wild Turkey male was putting on a show for a trio of females who were dining in the grass on the edge of the runway.

Ah, May.

The guy fanned out his tail, puffed up with body, and performed every move in his dance repertoire to wow the ladies. It wasn’t immediately obvious if they were impressed, and they certainly weren’t clucking audibly or swooning with delight. In fact, it was hard to tell if they even noticed the performer. But he wasn’t to be dissuaded, and when they finally all headed off in the direction of some sheltering shrubbery, you had to give him an A for effort. Maybe one of the females did, too.

Soon enough, there’ll be many more male migrants pulling off the behaviors that evolution has shaped—the moves that will make the next generation possible. They’ll perform against a backdrop of wildflowers like Dwarf Ginseng, Blue Cohosh, and Nodding Trillium, along with numerous unfurling ferns, from Cinnamon to Maidenhair, and, of course, a thickening green curtain of hardwood and understory shrub leaves. Late or early, the natural world’s May Pole dance is underway at a habitat near us all.

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