The return of the tropics 

The tender green of fresh leaves is now covering the land, with warmth and sun bringing growth and renewal. And tropical birds are arriving, flying long distances from their winter homes in Central or South America or the Caribbean. The wood warblers, notably, aka “forest gems”, bring the exuberance and flair of striking tropical colours into the austere dark woods of boreal spruce and tamaracks. 

When, let’s say, the American Redstarts have arrived (May 11th this year, in past seasons usually between May 8 and 10), we are entering, in my mind at least, the second (half of) Spring. This is the Spring most people prefer, I would dare to suggest, because it resembles summer the most: sunny, warm and green. The first half of Spring has merits too, of course, with many migrant birds travelling at that time: kinglets, juncos, raptors, ducks and geese. But the rainbow of colours that comes hurtling through our skies, landing in our woods and on our shores in May is unparalleled: seeing my first of the year (or tenth or twentieth) adult male Blackburnian Warbler in its orange and black costume always takes my breath away. Or Cape May Warbler. Or Magnolia Warbler. Or Indigo Bunting. Or Scarlet Tanager. Or.. Or… Or… Beautiful!

On Monday, May 8, the day was relatively uneventful, with very little movement following the previous day of rain. A young Golden Eagle glimpsed only briefly was certainly the highlight. The pace sped up throughout the week though, peaking on Friday and Saturday, the 12th and 13th. There was a high diversity of warblers all through these days, with several new arrivals: 12 species on May 9; 14 species on May 10 (including FOY Northern Waterthrush); 14 species again on May 11 (including FOY American Redstart); 17 species on May 12 (including FOY Common Yellowthroat and Chestnut-sided Warbler); and 16 species on May 13 (including FOY Wilson’s Warbler and Bay-breasted Warbler). 

During these last two days, birds seem to be everywhere, with trees suddenly filled by hungry birds. On May 12, 109 birds of 24 species were banded, 67 of them captured during the last hour of banding! The top banded species for the day were American Redstart and Magnolia Warblers with 15 birds each. We often hear that dawn is the best time for “bird watching” but it is not always the case. It is certainly when birds are more vocal during breeding season and will sing in a chorus aptly dubbed “dawn chorus”. But during migration, what mostly matters to birds during daylight hours is to find food (songbirds migrate at night). And at Cabot Head, the early hours of the day can be chilly, as we sit on the lovely but cold shores of Georgian Bay. Bird activity is often more intense later in the morning, when the sun is higher up in the sky and has roused the insects back to life. As a counter-example, today, Sunday 14, a light but cold North wind kept the temperatures low and the insects hidden and very few birds were seen or banded. On May 13, it was 80 birds of 26 species that were banded, including a remarkable ten Ovenbirds. It is the second time ever that Ovenbirds were banded in the double-digits in a day throughout the history of Cabot Head: 12 birds were banded on May 21, 2014. The 2023 FOY Wilson’s Warbler was a very yellow male sporting its famous shiny black cap captured on May 13. Wilson’s Warblers are definitely birds of the second half of Spring with most of their passage in late May. Our 2023 FOY is actually the earliest, tied with the 2009 FOY. To welcome him back, we put a band on it.

I would be remiss if I don’t tell you about all the other FOYs who are not forest gems. We appreciate birds of all kinds, shapes and colours here at Cabot Head. On May 10, Indigo Bunting (an adult female captured in all her brown glory) and Baltimore Oriole; on May 11, the loud “whack” at dawn alerted us to a nearby Black-crowned Night-heron, which was not seen, the flycatcher family brought us Least and Great Crested, and a pair of BOBO (bobolink) was seen flying in the distance; on May 12, several Eastern Kingbirds, a few American Pipits, and one Veery (in the nets); on May 13, one Scarlet Tanager (a beautiful green female) and one Swainson’s Thrush in the nets. These last two species (of thrushes) spend their winters in the Andean foothills: imagine their journeys! And, finally, in the cold morning of May 14, the main excitement was a Red-headed Woodpecker…

This past week, then, saw the return of the tropics and we are glad for it. For a few months, these visitors will make a home in our home(land), raise a family if they’re lucky, and ever too soon, return to warmer climes for a long winter. Bird migration is a remarkable story of impressive feats of navigation and travel, of resilience and courage, of places and landscapes connected through a web made of feathers and spirit.