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BIRDWISE: Northwoods is experiencing the best spring bird migration in years

"I haven’t had so much fun doing local birding in quite some time as I have this month," says local birding expert Marshall Howe.

Blackburnian Warbler
The Blackburnian and Magnolia warblers are two of the many strikingly beautiful warblers that may "fall out" during migration here. A male Blackburnian is shown here.
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In case you don’t know, most of our migratory birds migrate at night, navigating largely by the stars, but also by an internal GPS system that is not completely understood.

Whether, in any given year, we see many of the species that nest farther north of us is a crapshoot, a function of regional and local weather conditions.

But speaking of stars, this year they seem to have been perfectly aligned for providing numerous opportunities to see large numbers of species that often pass through undetected. I haven’t had so much fun doing local birding in quite some time as I have this month.

On our lakeside property, after several years of disappointing spring migrations, we have been fortunate to see some impressive “fallouts” of migrating warblers and other neotropical migratory birds in May.

By a “fallout,” I’m referring to large numbers of migrating birds dropping in here (rather than overshooting us) after a long night of flying north.

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In talking with other nearby birding aficionados, these fallouts were clearly not confined to my local area, but part of a regional trend.

Our first fallout occurred on May 10. I went out early and looked to the high pines with the morning sun at my back. I counted 10 species of warblers foraging actively on the sunny side of our red pines, where their insect prey first become active in the warmth.

The birds were mostly silent but voracious, a phenomenon known to ornithologists as hyperphagia – migrating birds need an extraordinary amount of food to fuel their flights so they spend much of their active time feeding.

On our lawn, we saw numerous Swainson’s thrushes hopping about like their distant relative, American robins. Normally, these thrushes lurk secretively in dense forests, but in migration they look for food wherever they can find it. Perhaps our late spring forced them to abandon their preferred quarters. These thrushes seemed to be everywhere for the next several days before numbers declined as they continued north.

The next couple of days didn’t produce any fallouts, but lingering migrants from the first fallout could be located around the yard.

Male Magnolia Warbler
A male Magnolia warbler.
Adobe Stock

But on May 12, a new coterie of warblers arrived. Several of these, the Nashville, orange-crowned and Cape May warblers (check your field guide if you’re not familiar with these) seemed to be focusing on the catkins of willows. I’m quite certain they were sipping nectar, rather than pursuing insects, their normal prey. Whatever it takes to replenish energy reserves!

Among the new arrivals were the “crown jewel of the north woods,” the Blackburnian warbler, and another standout, the Magnolia warbler.

May 14, 15 and 17 produced additional fallouts that yielded a variety of first arrivals for the season.

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For those of you who yawn at the mention of warblers and thrushes, I’m sure you have been pleased with the unusual numbers of more recognizable species that have fallen out this year: particularly Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks. Our yard has been overwhelmed with both of these beautiful species, as I’m sure yours have.

Savor this year’s spring migration. Next year’s may be a different story.

Marshall Howe is a retired biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He specialized in bird population studies. Howe has been a Park Rapids resident since 2010.

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