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BIRDWISE: Snapshots of this May’s bird life

Because favorable conditions for migration prevailed throughout, the visible evidence of it was just a trickle instead of a series of significant pulses, says local birding expert Marshall Howe.

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This unexpected male, black-throated green warbler decided to take up residence on Marshall Howe's property.
Ivan Kuzmin - stock.adobe.com

By June, the northward progression of migratory birds has mostly been completed and nesting is well underway.

As is often the case, we didn’t experience any sudden, mass influx of species locally this May. Known to birders as “waves,” such events require just the right timing of a rain system interfering with the birds’ progress and causing them to accumulate in a narrow area.

This May, there was almost no rain.

Because favorable conditions for migration prevailed throughout, the visible evidence of it was just a trickle instead of a series of significant pulses. My best birding day was May 22, a warm, humid day that produced the season’s first scarlet tanager, black-billed cuckoo and Tennessee warbler, and good numbers of American redstarts and red-eyed vireos.

Nonetheless, most of the locally nesting migratory species showed up at about the same date they do each year and made themselves known with their familiar songs as they set up breeding territories.

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A notable exception was the eastern phoebe. This normally common flycatcher typically arrives in late April, but was very scarce this year. The same phenomenon was noted by birders in the Twin Cities. I didn’t find my first one until May 20.

Because phoebes, like eastern bluebirds, winter in the southern U.S. instead of the tropics, they are vulnerable to severe winter weather. I suspect their population may have been decimated by weather and may take several years to fully recover.

An unexpected lingerer on our property was the lovely black-throated green warbler, a species more typically associated with fairly dense coniferous habitats, like those at the Lake Alice bog. Our bird continues, as of this writing, and hopefully has found a mate and is nesting. It has a buzzy, dreamy song, “zoo-zee-zoo-zoo-zee,” that I became familiar with as a boy growing up in the East, where these warblers were partial to hemlock groves.

Other species of particular interest this May: a red-headed woodpecker that made a very brief appearance at our feeder on May 13; a flock of several dozen pine siskins that persisted through the third week of May before moving on; abundant chestnut-sided warblers, whose loud “pleased pleased pleased to meetcha” song can be heard almost anywhere along forest edges and open shrubby sites throughout our area; and, last but not least, a more conspicuous migration than usual of common nighthawks, betraying their presence overhead by their loud buzzy call notes as they foraged like swallows. We heard or saw common nighthawks almost daily between May 21 and 31. They are a national species of concern because of plummeting populations over the past several decades, possibly a result of exposure to DDT on their tropical wintering grounds.

Now that migration is essentially over, the birds you hear singing are our locally nesting species. The month of June is the best time to try to learn their songs. With the deciduous trees fully leafed out now, birds can be difficult to see. But it’s worth the effort if it results in your learning which species is responsible for the song that’s been attracting your attention.

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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A male chestnut-sided warbler's familiar songs ring out from woodland edges and shrubby habitats.
Raymond Hennessy/rayhennessy - stock.adobe.com

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