THE GROUND IS COVERED WITH THEM (AND THE TREES AND BUSHES AND SKY)!
by Lynn Barber
When I was a little girl and just discovering birds in north-central Wisconsin many, many years ago, I had a slight tendency to exaggerate. My family routinely tried to remind me of this failing of mine every time they heard me exaggerate by quoting back to me my own prior excited exclamation of “The ground is covered with them” when I had found a flock of 20 or so juncos (then “Slate-colored Juncos) working our lawn right next to the house.
It’s true – the ground really wasn’t covered with juncos that day; I did exaggerate. But RIGHT NOW in central and eastern South Dakota for sure, and across much of the U.S., it is not an exaggeration. There are migrants and new arrivals hanging from trees, hopping on the ground, surrounding the puddles, filling the skies.
For much of the decade that I was in Texas, I thought that there was nowhere better to go for warblers in the spring than the various Texas coastal areas (e.g. Sabine Woods/High Island/Rockport). But then I did my ABA big year and discovered south Florida warbler birding in the spring, trees glowing with lively flitting colors. So I expanded my thinking to include the southeast.
Then two years ago in May I went to northern Ohio’s Greatest Week in American Birding and was stunned by the number of migrating birds (and birders!) covering the ground and trees and bushes. A spectacular bird celebration. I realized the birds don’t just all spread out and disappear when they leave the south.
This year I’m learning that it’s not just the Great Lakes states that get the central U.S. warblers. A couple of days ago in Pierre, there were as many Yellow Warblers and Blackpolls as there were Yellow-rumped Warblers, and there were zillions (no exaggeration) of Yellow-rumps, plus a couple each of some other warbler species. And migration up here is just getting started. I know that Texas has not yet released all of its warblers.
Of course it’s often the rarities that give a spice to a birder’s life, whether it’s spring migration or any other time of the year, especially a big year birder. The reason I was birding in Pierre is that a birding friend and I changed our birding plans entirely to go there because an immature male Summer Tanager, a real rarity in South Dakota, had been found. We were unable to see it in the evening when we got there, so we stayed overnight to look for it the next morning. After a couple of hours of breathless bird-silence, we suddenly heard the gentle song of a Summer Tanager, and then heard it’s call, and finally were able to locate the red and greenish yellow singer, first seen in the shadows of a large tree and then amazingly out on a limb seemingly silently posing for us. A beauty, as it turned out, in the midst of bird throng including warblers, and a gorgeous Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Baltimore Oriole.
Even in Rapid City, which is generally behind the eastern portion of the state in migrant arrival dates, the three of us doing our Monday morning Canyon Lake survey yesterday basically gave up on putting a number on the hordes of Violet-green Swallows passing overhead. No matter where we directed our binoculars skyward or when over a period of two hours, the binocular field of view was filled with 30-50 swallows, at least 99% of which were Violet-greens. They came over us, swirling, dipping down, every which way, but always pushing to the north-north west, wave after wave of swallows. We settled on the number of 800 Violet-greens, but it could just as well have been 8,000 or more. The sky was covered with them most of the time. It just so happens that there is another reason I was so excited by this occurrence – until yesterday, I had not seen a single Violet-green Swallow in 2012.
What a joy is spring when you are a birder!