Off The Porch with Judy and Don Self
A glance at the calendar, our backyard bird feeders and the forest tells us that we still have a few weeks to go before the end of winter.
Although we’ve had red and dark green of Teaberries to brighten the forest floor and occasional bursts of colorful fungi after a frontal passage, winter in Alabama’s hardwood forests is still largely a study in browns and grays. But now, if you look closely among the brown leaves and gray trunks of the winter forest, bits of spring color are beginning to appear.
The blue and white of violets on the forest floor and, in the branches overhead, the brilliant yellow buds of the Carolina jasmine are just beginning to open.
But, best of all, the thickets of Chickasaw plums are in full bloom! And although its only the first week in March, swarms of native bees and flies are busy pollinating the clusters of white flowers and promise a good crop of the honey-sweet fruit later this year!
Our winter birds are still here though. We still have a small flock of Purple Finches, nearly 100 American Goldfinches, an equal number of Chipping Sparrows, about 20 White-throated Sparrows and a couple of Dark-eyed Juncos helping our year-round Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice wolf down prodigious amounts of black oil sunflower seeds and white millet at our feeders each day. And the Sharp-shinned Hawk is still here, dining on the occasional unwary sparrow or finch.
But, spring migration and the nesting season have begun! Our first Purple Martins arrived over a month ago! And the Swallow-tailed Kites should be arriving from South America as we write.
Great-horned and Barred Owls already have young in the nest. And early-nesting Eastern Bluebirds are incubating eggs in theirs.
A pair of Carolina Chickadees is busy with nest construction in our side yard. If you’ve ever peeked in a nest box occupied by chickadees, you know that their construction technique is distinctive.
They always use bits of green moss as the foundation for the nest. The actual nest cup,
which they line with downy plant material, is then built to one side of the moss platform.
So, for the next two and a half months, we’ll witness a changing of the avian guard as waves of migrants arrive, slowly at first, building to a crescendo in April and May . . . and the birds that wintered with us depart.
Before they go however, the male American Goldfinches still at our feeders will molt their drab winter plumage becoming the brilliant yellow bird with bold black and white wings and tail and jaunty black cap that old-timers call the “wild canary.”
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will begin to arrive in late March, so now’s the time to clean your feeders and fill them with fresh sugar-water (1 part sugar to 4 parts water; it’s much cheaper than commercial “nectar” products and may even be safer for the birds).
Hermit Thrushes who spent the winter silently prowling our woodlands will leave in mid-April to fill the Canadian forests with their flutelike songs. They’ll be replaced by our own flutist, the Wood Thrush.
The Eastern Phoebes that hawked insects from a perch all winter will move northward, their niche filled by Eastern Kingbirds by the end of March joined by Great Crested and Acadian Flycatchers a few weeks later. In mid-April, the Blue-headed Vireos too will head north to be replaced by their Yellow-throated and Red-eyed kin. Summer Tanagers and Orchard Orioles will arrive and the number of warbler species will swell from four to fourteen.
The tribes of winter sparrows that foraged in field and hedgerow will be replaced by their summer kin, Indigo and Painted Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, and Dickcissels. The large flocks of Red-winged, Brewer’s and Rusty Blackbirds and Common Grackles will disperse, abandoning their communal winter roosts.
All of this can be seen from your porch, especially if you keep a pair of binoculars handy. If you get off the porch, there’s a hundred times more to be seen. That’s where we’ll be!