Sunday, May 21, 2006

hummingbird feeder : Spring winds bring birds north to breed

Spring migration is nearing its peak. Now is a great time to see many species of warblers, vireos, flycatchers and other migrating species as they stream into Maine. Most of these species migrate at night and touch down at daybreak. They feed ravenously for a few hours during the early daylight hours and then rest. Many males sing on migration, practicing for the breeding season.

The best time to see the migrants is in the early morning. Late afternoon can also be good as many individuals prepare to continue their migration once the sun goes down.

Weather has a strong influence on migration and on the number of migrants you will see. Watch the weather map for the arrival of a low-pressure system or cyclone. In a cyclone, the winds flow in a counterclockwise direction. That means the winds on the eastern side of the low will be flowing north, encouraging birds to move northward. As the low passes, the winds will switch to the north on the backside of the cyclone and the weather will often turn rainy. Those conditions force the birds to descend from their migration, producing fallouts of birds. It's ironic that on beautiful clear mornings dominated by high pressure the birding can be poor. The migrating birds have happily bypassed you as they continue north. It's the raw, windy mornings that usually reward the birder with the most birds.

Lionel Quirion, who conducts a hawk watch on Bradbury Mountain in Pownal each April, counted 1,170 hawks last month of 10 species. The "big three" were 617 broad-winged hawks, 192 osprey and 172 sharp-shinned hawks.The best counts occurred when the winds were southerly. Northerly winds produced very few migrating raptors.

The spring migration does not produce as many out-of-range rarities as the fall migration, but unexpected birds can pop up anywhere. Many of these birds will be species that overshot their normal breeding grounds. Hooded warblers, Kentucky warblers, worm-eating warblers and summer tanagers fall into this category. On rare occasions, eye-popping rarities like a fork-tailed flycatcher from South America appear in New England.

You can see birds at night during migration. On a clear night, find a dark open area and train your binoculars on the moon. You may be surprised at how many birds you can see flying across the face of the moon. You can easily detect the presence of migrants overhead by sound. Many warblers, thrushes and other songbirds give distinctive chips as they migrate.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds will be arriving any day now, if they have not already appeared. Get those hummingbird feeders up soon. You can buy powdered mixes to make sugar water or make your own, using ordinary table sugar. Mix one part of sugar with four parts of water and bring to a boil. Allow the sugar water to cool before putting it in your feeder. I usually make extra sugar water that can be stored for several weeks in the refrigerator. There is no need to add red food coloring to the sugar water.

It's a good idea to clean your feeder once every week or two with hot water to ward off fungi. If you are in the market for a hummingbird feeder, be sure to buy one that is easy to clean.

Baltimore orioles are returning to Maine now. These colorful birds have a fondness for citrus fruit. Cut an orange in half and impale each portion on a stick or nail in a conspicuous place. Enjoy the rich piping songs of the orioles. Each male has a distinctive song but the overall timbre and other qualities of the song allow a listener to make the proper auditory identification. Baltimore orioles sing a lot until about the middle of June. Dramatically, the males sing only infrequently once nesting is under way.

HERB WILSON teaches ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at:


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