The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
by Ted Floyd
Is it the month of May, when spring migration is going at full tilt? How about Christmastime, with CBCs and starting up our year lists anew? If you’ve caught the Breeding Bird Atlas bug, it’s June. And I like an idea that I associate with Rick Wright and Paul Lehman: November, the grandest month for rarities.
Good stuff. Those are all fine seasons in the birding calendar. But my favorite time of year is July.
July? Come again?
That’s right, July. I’m so excited that I’m wide awake now, typing, at 2:34 in the morning, Mountain Daylight Time. I’m outside, of course, with my laptop. I don’t want to miss any of the action.
It’s been this way for more than a week now.
And it’s really picked up the past few days.
Again: July? What’s so special about July? I mean, it’s hot in July. Indeed, it’s been real hot this summer. Record hot. By the third week in July, the dawn chorus has practically shut down. Robins are feeding young, I guess, and there are some Canada Geese at the pond at the end of the street. What else?—well, I guess you can observe gular flutter (google it) on hot afternoons in July.
I confess: For years, that was my take on birding in July. For me, July used to be the dullest month of the year. There weren’t any migrants around, I assumed, and the resident birds were either feeding young or engaged in gular flutter.
I’ve revised that assessment. I’ve come to view July as just about the most dynamic month of the year, birdwise. Things change in July, day to day, even hour to hour. But there’s a marvelous subtlety about it all. The dynamism—even the majesty—of July birding isn’t in your face, like wood-warblers on migration in May or the dawn chorus in June. Don’t get me wrong: I’m as delighted as anybody to see a rarity on a Christmas Count, or a mega around Thanksgiving time. But there’s a special delight in appreciating the subtle dynamism of the July avifauna.
Enough preamble. Let’s talk about birds. Here are ten observations of mine from the past three days, Saturday–Monday, July 21–23. All are from around Boulder County, Colorado, where I live. Here goes:
10. Shorebirds. Okay, I’m starting out on a relatively unsubtle note. Even back in the benighted old days, I was aware that the “fall” shorebird migration is under way by Independence Day. Fair enough. But isn’t there still, after all these years, a bewitchingly, well, subtle aspect to the July shorebird passage? During a lunch-hour getaway on Monday, I saw a flock of Baird’s Sandpipers at a local lake. They were inconspicuous and drab, about the same color as the drying mud in the little cove where they sauntered about. But check this out: They’d just come down from the Arctic, en route to wintering grounds in South America. That’s the dynamism—even the majesty—of the phenomenon of shorebird migration. And that’s the wonderful paradox of July birding: a transcontinental drama so obscure that almost nobody notices it. Right: Baird's Sandpiper by © Bill Schmoker.
9. Molt. Talk about subtle. But also dynamic. Molt is all about change. And many birds—most birds, in fact—are molting in July. Including the adult Northern Goshawk I saw on Saturday afternoon. It was soaring over the ponderosa pines and Douglas firs (sorry, but the hyphen is an affectation) that cover the steep foothills of the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains.
It’s 3:09 a.m. Venus has just risen. Skies are clear but hazy. There’s a bit of a breeze.
8. What in the name of—? On Sunday evening, my family and I were startled to see a gorgeous pink-and-green Lewis’s Woodpecker flying low over the treetops at the postage stamp wildlife preserve down the street from our house. It was a local first, and notable anywhere in the county. I have no idea where it came, and it just kept on going south. Weird. And wow! When I reflect on July birding, I can’t help but think of something that was said by Joaquin Andujar (google him): “There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is: ‘You never know.’”
7. An unresolved mystery. What’s the deal with Blue Grosbeaks in Boulder County? Go out at sunrise in the second half of July, or anytime in August, or even into early September, and you will hear Blue Grosbeaks singing their heads off. Quite often, they’re in places where they weren’t until mid-summer. So it was with a bright male on sunny Monday afternoon. Where’d he come from? And why was he singing with such gusto? One idea is that our birds come from elsewhere (but from where?) to start a second nesting in the middle of the summer. Who knows!
3:31 a.m. Cool! A Spotted Sandpiper is calling by the lakeshore.
6. Hummingbirds! I’m curious: How widely is it known that the “fall” hummingbird migration through western North America is going full-throttle in July? On Saturday afternoon, the feeders at a private residence in the mountains was thronged by hundreds of hummers. Many were presumed residents, but many others were unquestionably migrants—among them a handful of radiant male Calliope Hummingbirds. Left: Calliope Hummingbird by © Bill Schmoker.
5. And herons! Herons, too, show up in Boulder County in July. Most conspicuous are egrets, and most “definitive,” if you will, are the lovely Snowy Egrets. A few migrate through in spring, then they’re gone in June, and then they’re back. We birders refer to their midsummer movements not as “migration,” but rather as “post-breeding dispersal.” I don’t really favor the term; I mean, what’s the difference? Regardless, it’s always a delight to see the first Snowy Egret of the season—it was a juvenile standing by a lakeshore on Monday morning.
3:41 a.m. Ah. There goes a Canada Goose.
4. “Post-breeding dispersal,” cont.’d. Where does the Common Nighthawk fit into things? A few migrate through my neighborhood in late May and early June. Then they’re gone for about a month. And, then, they’re back. I saw one flying around the local park on Sunday evening. Was it engaged in post-breeding dispersal? After all, nighthawks breed just a few miles away, in the rocky grasslands of extreme southeastern Boulder County. My answer: Yes, post-breeding dispersal, of a particularly subtle, and therefore delectable, sort.
3. Baby birds. Sunday afternoon. Blazing hot. The heart of downtown Boulder: cars lined up at an intersection; air-conditioners blasting from every building; the artless banter of folks filing out of a department store. And this: eerie wailing from a tall shade tree, followed by an unmistakable c-r-r-roak. The Common Ravens have fledged. How cool is that! I grew up in a time and place when ravens were almost unimaginably rare, and, to this day, ravens still excite me. In my head, I “know” they’re common city birds in Boulder; in my heart, they are, and always will be, thrilling.
2. Nocturnal swallows. For several years now, I’ve been noticing that Barn Swallows are active by night during midsummer in my neighborhood. What’s up with that? On Sunday “morning,” well before sunrise—even before “astronomical dawn”—they were going at it. I could hear them from the exact same park bench I’m sitting in right now, this very instant. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear their familiar twittering in the dark sky above. Again: Why? What’s going on? Are these local birds just flying around? (But why?) Or is something bigger, some amount of “post-breeding dispersal” (see above). Or could it be something bigger yet? Could these be birds be full-on nocturnal migrants?
3:58 a.m. I couldn’t have scripted it better. An invisible but plainly audible Barn Swallow is flying over.
1. The Greatest Show on Earth, and the Best Day of the Year. For several nights, I’d been listening for them. Last year, they came a few days early, on July 18. The year before, not until July 24. This year, it happened on Sunday morning, July 22, at 4:13 in the morning. Fully 100 minutes before sunrise. I heard one of their tiny voices, and then another. High up in the sky, but unmistakable: the piercing flight calls of the season’s first Chipping Sparrows on nocturnal migration. Isn’t that crazy!—Chipping Sparrows migrating in July. They don’t breed in or especially close to my neighborhood. But they migrate, under cover of darkness, often in the middle of the night (if I’m up, I’ll hear them at one in the morning, two in the morning, whenever), from their breeding grounds in the Rocky Mountains to their recently discovered molting grounds on the High Plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas. Right: Chipping Sparrow by © Ted Floyd.
That high-pitched flight call—it’s over in less than a tenth of a second—is, for me, the essence of birding in July. It’s awesome, in the best sense of the word, to hear that sound, and to know that it signifies the little-appreciated mid-summer eastbound nocturnal migration of montane sparrows into the central and southern Great Plains. You have to know to listen for it, though. Now I hope the following doesn’t come across as elitist, but an appreciation for birding in July requires some combination of experience, perspective, and knowledge. But take heart! You don’t have to go on some tour to enjoy the Greatest Show on Earth; you don’t have to haul yourself out to some faraway wildlife refuge; why, you don’t even need binoculars. I’m sitting on a park bench—it’s 4:10 a.m. now, I’ll soon be able to make out out the faintest traces of dawn (oh, cool!—a meteor falling through the Summer Triangle), and I need to head inside and upload this post—and, if the guy delivering the papers can see me, well, let’s just say he probably wouldn’t describe me as an “elite” specimen of humanity. The Greatest Show on Earth is accessible and available to anybody, anywhere; its stars are Canada Geese, Chipping Sparrows, and Barn Swallows. Nothin’ elitist about that!
Let’s do just one more thing now before wrapping up and calling it a night. Let’s go birding for just a bit longer. Here goes:
4:13 a.m. A Canada Goose is going off.
4:14 a.m. There goes a Barn Swallow!
4:15 a.m. Two Canada Geese are going at it now.
4:17 a.m. Through the thin, high haze, I can just barely discern the Galaxy in Andromeda.
4:20 a.m. Hmm... Things have quieted down a bit. But I’m hearing two species of orthopterans, I believe.
4:29 a.m. It will soon be nautical dawn, and I can already see a faint glow in the eastern sky. I’m heading indoors now, for a long day of manuscript review—the day job, y’know. But it’s been wonderful out there, under the stars, the most wonderful time of the year.