The beginning of the end!

Between the heavy rain of last Sunday (May 20) to the heavy rain of this Thursday (May 25), birds took advantage of the good weather to continue their migration. There was a new suite of migrants showing up in the trees and nets of Cabot Head, the so-called late migrants, species that are the last to move through on their way to breeding grounds. On May 21, the FOY joys were: Gray-cheeked and Swainson’s Thrushes, Red-eyed Vireo, and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. On May 22, it was Wilson’s Warbler, a strapping male in a bright yellow costume and black shiny cap, and Blackpoll Warbler, with its delicate, distinctive song that indicated the arrival that morning. In the afternoon of May 22, outside the “official” monitoring period, we admired a bright male Indigo Bunting (FOY). And the FOY flock of Cedar Waxwings was also detected. On May 23, the last species of warbler to be detected, so far this season, was Tennessee Warbler, bringing the season total of warbler species to 25. And a FOY Eastern Wood-Pewee was heard in the woods, calling its namesake song (peee-wee!).

The Yellow-bellied Flycatcher breeds in moist-to-wet coniferous forests and wooded peatlands and is more often heard than seen on its breeding grounds. At Cabot Head, as with elsewhere in Ontario, it is typically first detected in late-May and continues to be present well into June. It has one of the latest spring migrations of songbirds and one of the shortest residence times of any migrants, departing back in August, usually staying only about 66 days on the Ontario breeding grounds.

Blackpoll Warblers, arriving at Cabot Head from their wintering grounds in northern South America, still have close to a thousand kilometers to fly before reaching the Hudson Bay Lowlands where they breed. This species has the most northerly distribution of any warbler in the province, breeding from the tree line South through the Hudson Bay Lowlands to northern parts of the Northern Shield region. It effectively means that, for most of us, our only chance to see this species is during its migration, especially in Spring when they do sing, even so far from their breeding grounds.

Hearing their simple but beautiful song always evokes the beginning of the end for me: I know that Spring migration is slowly coming to an end when the Blackpoll song falls down from the treetops of the cedars at Cabot Head. It is when the late migrants rush through, when the local birds establish their own breeding territories through much singing and fighting, especially the abundant American Redstarts, when the Earth is finally fully cloaked in green, with tender shoots of grass and fresh soft leaves unfurling on every branch of every tree and shrub.

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