A web of connections or the importance of a messy garden.

Migratory birds are on the move and they are coming from far-flung places. Look at a map of the Western Hemisphere and wherever you look south of the Canada/US border, you are looking at a place that could harbour birds in their wintering haunts or on migration. Red Knots spend their winter in Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America and breeds in the central Canadian Arctic, doing migratory round-trips of over 30,000 km each year, with few but crucial stopovers in between. Swainson’s Thrushes would be coming from the northern Andes, wintering grounds they share with Canada Warblers and Olive-sided Flycatchers. A Black-throated Blue Warbler may have wintered in Cuba, where American Redstarts also like to spend their winter deep in mangroves. Some Palm Warblers, like true Canadians, may have chosen southern Florida for their getaway during the cold season. A White-throated Sparrow breeding in the heart of the boreal forest in Ontario may have not gone much further south than the state of New York. 

All these species and all these birds are on the move right now! And they all need good weather and places to stop and feed. Not so much to rest: there are still lots to learn about sleep in birds but it seems that they can go on with very little. But they do need to feed and re-fuel as flying non-stop for several hours (most often at night) requires tremendous energy, burning fat as fuel that needs to be replenish periodically. 

For some species, it is done in very specific locations. Red Knots, for example, will stop in Delaware Bay to gorge themselves on horseshoe crab eggs, timing their arrival with the spawning of these phantasmagorical-looking crabs. On the other hand, most songbirds can make do with any patch of habitat, a woodlot, a plowed field, a flooded spring creek, an urban garden, as long as they can find food. 

At Cabot Head, we often watch hungry birds literally in a feeding frenzy, indifferent to our presence, being so intent into getting fat again. Midges are a great source of food and their emergence in huge numbers in spring greatly helps birds. And with a little help from (unknowing) friends, birds enjoy an even easier meal: there are many, many inactive, old spider webs around, which act as a perfect trap for midges, uncollected by still dormant spiders. Warblers, nuthatches, sparrows, we have observed them all pecking and eating midges from these spiderwebs using a little caution and much bill cleaning (rubbing the bill on a small branch to get rid of the sticky threads). Spiderwebs may look messy but in an interesting twist they are providing much needed calories to hungry migrants. So, let’s keep spiderwebs in our gardens and parks!

There were huge movements of birds during the past week resulting in very good numbers of birds banded and observations of some fantastic morning flights. The banding highlight was on May 5 when 117 birds were banded and 17 recaptured, about half of them kinglets but with good numbers of Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers. It was likely the last hooray for the kinglets: most of their migration is over now, especially for the golden-crowned kinglet. We are now entering warbler time! (and also, of course, oriole and tanager and grosbeak and so many others but the warblers in mid-May are definitely the stars of the show)

On May 8, there was an almost constant stream of warblers flying over the treetops against an increasing East wind. Birds barely stopped and certainly didn’t go near the nets, as only 8 birds of 5 species were captured. But we estimated over 400 Yellow-rumped Warblers over the course of 7 hours, as well as almost 30 Palm Warblers, 15 Cape May Warblers, 6 Norther Parulas, and a very short glimpse of the first Blackburnian Warbler of the year.

The following day, May 9, was also clear and sunny and windy. The wind was even stronger, forcing us to close many nets. The 5 left open did a good job though, catching the bulk of the 45 birds of 10 species banded that day. Birds were not flying as high and were also interested in feeding while moving through the trees and shrubs. A total of 13 species of warblers were detected that day, including FOY Magnolia Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, and American Redstart. The striking black and orange male Redstart is a very common sight at Cabot Head once it has arrived, being the most abundant local breeder. Many are simply passing through intent on other breeding places. Our FOY American Redstarts for 2022 were just in time: FOY have been detected between May 8 and 10 in 13 of the past 19 years (2020 is a year apart due to a limited coverage).

Contrary to the first one the day before, several male Blackburnian Warblers gave us excellent occasions to enjoy their amazing patterns of orange and black with sometime three males in the same tree at once! Cape May Warblers and Northern Parulas were also very obliging, with 13 and 9 individuals, respectively. Once again, the most abundant species was the Yellow-rumped Warbler with almost 200 birds observed, followed by Palm Warblers (60 birds) and Black-and-white Warblers (20 birds). 

On May 9, the sky filled up with large kettles of raptors, mostly Broad-winged Hawks (85 birds) mixed with a few Red-tailed Hawks and several Turkey Vultures. Sharp-shinned Hawks continued to move through in good numbers as well, with 40 counted. 

And finally, still on May 9, the FOY Spotted Sandpipers claimed the shoreline with their bobbing tail and loud whistle. 

Did I already say that May is a time to get outside and enjoy the great pulse of life? I will say it again and again. I will never tired of watching a Blackburnian Warbler against the deep blue sky as it moved along a bare and delicate birch branch.