Warbler Watch: They’re Migrating Again

In the middle of August I begin to anticipate the birds migrating southward who will begin showing up in Eliza Howell Park before the end of the month. I am thinking, at this particular time, of one species (Common Nighthawk) and a whole bird family (Warblers). I hope to comment more on Nighthawks in another post. This is about the warbler migration. Many warblers are now leaving the North Woods and heading our way.

Invitation: Detroit Audubon is sponsoring a bird walk at Eliza Howell Park on Saturday, September 8, starting at 8:00 a.m. The event is open to anyone interested and there is no cost.

Of the 20 or so warbler species that pass through the park on their way south each year (most from late August to late September), a select few are pictured here with a range/migration map for each. The yellow section on the map is the breeding range, the purple is the winter range, and the pink indicates the areas over which they migrate.

Canada Warbler

Canada warbler

Canada Warbler Migration

20180812_172222

All the warbler photos in this essay were taken by Margaret Weber.

The maps are from Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, The Warbler Guide, 2013.

Most warblers are long-distance migrants that spend much less time in their North Woods breeding habitat than on the wintering ground and in migration. It was only a short time ago, in May, when they last passed through here, as they headed north. Since then, they have built nests, incubated eggs, fed their young, and are now heading back to locations where insects can be found throughout the winter months.

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia 2018

Magnolia Warbler Migration

20180812_150959

When we last saw migrating warblers in Detroit in May, they were in their bright breeding plumage, as represented in these pictures. Now many of them will be arriving in a somewhat different and somewhat duller fall/winter look. The process of learning to identify warblers involves learning the visual variations from spring to fall, a sometimes challenging project that may take a few years. Fortunately, the Fall migration is spread over more weeks than the brief intense Spring migration so there is a little more time to develop field skills.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut_sided_2018

Chestnut-sided Warbler Migration

20180812_172023

Annual bird migration is a fascinating natural phenomenon. Warblers are very small birds. Chestnut-sided Warblers, for example, are 4 – 5 inches in length and weigh about 0.4 oz. Most of the tiny warblers migrate a couple thousand miles twice each year. It is hard to imagine the energy required, but easy to understand the fuel stops along the way. Since many small birds migrate at night, early morning, as soon as it is warm enough for insect activity, is often a good time to see them as they begin to feed.

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian_2018

Blackburian Warbler Migration

20180812_155447

I don’t expect to see every migrating warbler species every Fall in EHP; their stops are brief and not always in the same location. Good bird observations often result from being “in the right place at the right time” and the right place and time cannot always be predicted with full accuracy. Based on past experiences and years of records, however, I can quite confidently predict that Blackburians will be visible and that they will be among the warblers seen before the end of August. Some of them do not have far to fly from their breeding ground to Detroit.

Wilson’s Warbler

wilsons warbler

Wilson’s Warbler Migration

20180812_172419

As can be noted from the maps above, many warblers that are seen in eastern United States are not found in western states. Wilson’s warbler is an exception. It migrates through/over almost every state.

—–

There is a saying common among social justice advocates and environmentalists: “Think globally, act locally.” The big picture provides the context and, at times, the incentive for effective and significant local projects and behavior.

In a somewhat similar way, local nature observation and appreciation can be even more enriching and satisfying with an awareness of the big picture. When I see warblers stopping in the park on their way south over the next several weeks, I am thrilled just to see them but also impressed and amazed at where they have been and where they are going.

 

Warbler Time at Eliza Howell: Neotropical Migrants

A neotropical migratory bird is a bird that breeds in Canada and/or the U.S. and spends (our) winter in Mexico, Central America, South America, or the Caribbean. Many such species arrive in and/or pass through SE Michigan in May.

Over 2 dozen different species of warblers alone arrive at this time of the year and many, many bird watchers head for migrating warbling hotspots like Magee Marsh in Ohio, Point Pelee in Ontario, and Tawas Point in Michigan.

Warbler chasers come to these hotspots from all over, in big numbers, and with big cameras. These tiny birds (about the size of chickadees) are one of the key reasons that bird tourism is a big business in some locations.

Warblers also pass through Eliza Howell Park, though in smaller numbers. Here are some of the migrating warblers that I tend to see every May in the park. Each picture is of a male in breeding season plumage.

The following photos were all taken by Margaret Weber. My thanks for the permission to use and my appreciation of the quality of the shots.

Blackburnian 2018

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnians pass through here on their way to their breeding grounds from mid-Michigan through much of Canada.

 

Black & White Warbler 1

Black and White Warbler

This is one of the few warblers that forages for insects along the branches of trees rather than in the leaves.

 

Chestnut sided 2018

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warblers glean insects from the bottom of leaves. Their breeding area includes much of Michigan.

 

northern parula

Northern Parula

In breeding season, this forest bird is usually high in the canopy. In migration, however, it is often low enough for good looks.

 

nashville warbler

Nashville Warbler

The Nashville Warbler is misnamed. It migrates through Tennessee, but neither summers nor winters there. It breeds in northern Michigan and Canada, nesting on the ground.

 

Magnolia 2018

Magnolia Warbler

The Magnolia Warbler was given its name 200 years ago by an ornithologist who found it in a magnolia tree in Mississippi (in migration). It breeds in the northern forest, far from any magnolias.

 

Am Redstart 2018

American Redstart

American redstarts breed in much of the eastern United States, favoring woodlands with abundant shrubs. I have not yet observed them in breeding season in Eliza Howell Park, but it would not surprise me if I do some year.

——

There is not much that can compare with the excitement of seeking and finding these beautiful birds as they near the end of their long migration northward. During their May migration through this part of the country, approximately May 5 to May 20, I spend some time with the crowds at the famous hotspots.

That is exciting, but it is even more satisfying for me to see these warblers right here in this Detroit park. I hope to introduce others to the experience.

 

Killdeer: A Story of Nest and Eggs

Killdeer usually return to Eliza Howell Park in early March; this year I had my first sighting on March 9. Typically, there are a few in the park from March till late Summer or early Fall.

Killdeer are plovers, a type of shorebird, but they are often found in open areas some distance from water. In EHP, they are most commonly seen in the fields within the road loop

Resized_20180214_183853

Photo by Margaret Weber

Killdeer are early nester. In the years that I find a nest, it is in April. On April 18 this year, while walking through the field with a companion, we saw a Killdeer run slowly away from our path. Stopping to get a better look at the bird, we watched as it did its broken-wing act. This effort to try to get us to follow it rather than continue where we were headed suggested that we were close to the nest.

I looked down in the direction we had been walking and there, three feet ahead, was the nest.

20180420_102554

Killdeer lay their eggs (almost always 4) in a shallow depression in the ground, where they incubate unprotected from spring rains, cold, and occasional snow. There is no structure to stand out and the egg coloring makes them well camouflaged. I am sure that I have walked right past Killdeer nests quite a number of times without knowing it.

For the size of the bird (a Killdeer is very slightly larger than an American Robin), the eggs are large, about 70% larger than those of Robins. The egg size is important. The larger eggs contain more nutrition and make possible more extensive development before hatching.

20180420_114526

Bird hatchlings are usually described as either “altricial” or “precocial.” Most small birds that nest in Eliza Howell are quite naked and helpless when first hatched and are totally dependent on being care for in the nest (altricial). A Killdeer is precocial, has fluffy feathers when it hatches and can walk away from the nest on the first day and start eating on its own (think precocious).

Greater development in the shell takes longer, however, and the newly hatched Killdeer is about the same “age” as a robin 12 days after hatching. Killdeer eggs are incubated 24 – 26 days and Robin eggs 11- 14 days.

The young Killdeer chicks will not be out in the ground nest helpless after hatching; once hatched, their parents can lead them to other hiding places. Until then, the eggs are at some risk from predators, from being stepped on, and, perhaps, from lawn mowers. I don’t know how long this Killdeer pair has been incubating so far, but hatch date is probably be a couple weeks away yet.

 

Farewell, Winter Companions

On my walk on April 8, I again watched Dark-eyed Juncos in Eliza Howell Park, a common occurrence over the last 6 months. This is one of the last times this season; they will soon be leaving, heading north to breed, probably in the forests of Canada.

The juncos usually arrive in Detroit in early October and return north sometime in April. Nicknamed “snowbirds,” they are the most common of the birds that spend the winter, but not the summer, with us. For the bird watcher in this geographical region, winter means juncos.

junco

After seeing at least a dozen juncos on April 8, I reviewed my records to see how much longer in April they might be around. During the last 10 years, the latest date I have seen juncos in the park has been April 17 (in three different years). In two other years, the latest date was April 16 and April 15.

 

Even keeping in mind that I do not visit the park every day and that I could miss them when I am there, the pattern from past records is still quite clear: I am not likely to see them after April 17.

20180409_102921

The juncos have been our companions through the cold and snows of winter. It is now time for them to continue their annual life cycle.

I hope to see a few juncos in the park for another week or so and to wish them a safe journey. By October, I will be eager to see them and/or their offspring here again.

Photos by Margaret Weber

April Visits from Two Little Kings

These tiny 4-inch birds, smaller than warblers, moving almost non-stop from branch to branch gleaning insects, will be passing through Eliza Howell this month. They are among the very earliest of the species that migrate through the park on their way to breeding grounds further north.

I am referring to the two species of kinglet, the Golden-crowned Kinglet and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. “Kinglet” means “little king” and is a good translation of their Latin genus name, “Regulus.” The head markings (crown) of the Golden-crowned Kinglet are much more distinctive than those of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. These are the only two species of kinglet in North America.

All photos below are by Margaret Weber.

20180402_165219

The Golden-crowned arrives first, often beginning in the first week of April, and they have all passed through by the end of the month. It can usually be identified as a kinglet by its size and behavior, and the head identifies it as Golden-crowned.

Golden-crowned Kinglets breed from the Upper Peninsula north, usually building their nests high in conifers. Detroit is at the northern edge of their winter range and I have once seen one in the park in January.

20180402_165645

The Ruby-crowned Kinglet arrives a little later each Spring, usually about the third week of April, and a few can be seen into early May. While they, too, can be recognized as kinglets by size and behavior, the head markings are often not noticeable. White wing bars are usually evident and the white eye ring helps to confirm their identity (taken together with the lack of a golden crown).

When seen from underneath, they do not look particularly like a little king.

ruby crowned kinglet branch

Ruby-crowns also nest from the UP north, typically in conifers.

The red crown of the male is rarely seen, only when the male is excited.

20180402_165107

In the Fall, both kinglets pass through Eliza Howell again, the Ruby-crowned normally starting in September and the Golden-crowned in October.

Those walking in Eliza Howell Park in April (and those coming on the nature walk on April 21) have a quite good chance of seeing one or both of these little kings on their annual spring visit.

THE MARCH 10 (or 11)

No matter how satisfying winter birding has been, I am always excited as March approaches, ready to welcome back the species that I have not seen since the fall. Many other migrants will be putting in their appearance later, but there is something special about the first spring arrivals each year.

Over the years, I have come to anticipate the arrival in Eliza Howell Park of the same ten species each year in March. One or two of these ten might not show till the beginning April on a rare occasion, but the chances are excellent that I will see these ten in the park in March. It is easier to predict their migration patterns than to predict March weather!

These species have two characteristics in common.

  1. They spend the winters within the United States, only a relatively short distance south; they are not among the neotropical migrants that winter in Central or South America.
  2. Southeastern Michigan is part of their breeding territory; they are returning here for the summer, not just migrating through to destinations further north, as do many of the later spring migrants.
  • Note: All the photos included here were taken by Margaret Weber.

The Red-winged Blackbird is often the first to arrive. The males arrive before the females, who might not make it till April. When the first males arrive, their red shoulder patches may still be somewhat winter dull. As the month advances, this changes noticeably and, by the end of March, they are ready to welcome the females with bright patches. Red-winged Blackbirds nest in Eliza Howell Park every year.

Resized_20180214_183717

The Common Grackle and the Brown-headed Cowbird (neither is pictured here) also arrive in March unfailingly. Grackles nest in the park. Brown-headed Cowbirds, as brood parasites, do not build their own nests at all. They are, however, very successful in reproducing in Eliza Howell, being specialists in adding an egg to nests of other species.

The Killdeer is also a reliable March arrival, but never in great numbers. I count finding its nest, “hidden out in the open” on the ground, as one of my most exciting nest-searching experiences.

Resized_20180214_183853001

The Rouge River flows south through Eliza Howell and two miles or so downriver from Eliza Howell, in Rouge Park, there is a Great Blue Heron rookery. This might be where the herons that forage in EH nest, though I do not know that for sure. I do know that I can expect their arrival along the river or in the spring-flooded bottomland in March.

20180206_170056

Hinckley, Ohio, celebrates the annual arrival of the Turkey Vulture (not pictured) every year in the middle of March. It is usually about then that I see the first vultures of the year in EH. They soar overhead, surveying the terrain singly or in small numbers. They will appear repeatedly over the next few months, but I know not where they nest.

Ten years ago the Eastern Bluebird would not have been on this list. They are slowly becoming more regular summer residents of Eliza Howell Park. While Eastern Bluebirds are sometimes seen at other locations in southern Michigan in the winter, I usually do not see them here until March.

20180214_184041

Of the birds on this list, the Wood Duck may be the most thrilling. It arrives regularly on the river in March, the only duck besides the Mallard that is common here. The male in the spring is so striking, especially in the sunlight, that it always produces a “wow” response. Wood ducks nest in tree cavities and definitely breed in the park, evidenced by the presence every year of young ducklings on the river.

20180207_131218

I do not expect to see the Eastern Phoebe until the very last week of the March – and then I can pretty much count on seeing it, often by the river near the footbridge. It has nested under the footbridge more than once. The phoebe is the earliest species in the flycatcher family to arrive and is a definite sign of spring.

20180214_183133

While many woodpeckers remain through the winter (in Eliza Howell, the Red-bellied, Downy, and Hairy), the Northern Flicker is a woodpecker that heads south for the winter. Its foraging behavior is a little different from many woodpeckers, spending much of time on the ground searching for insects. It usually returns to Eliza Howell near the end of March and will be drilling a nesting cavity in less than a month, usually in a dead tree.

Resized_20180215_105009

I sometimes think that I should include Song Sparrow (not pictured) among the March arrivals (# 11). Every other year or so, a Song Sparrow or two spend part of the winter in Eliza Howell. When they don’t, I can count on seeing them in March.  In breeding season, I often see these sparrows carrying food for their young into thickets, but their well-hidden nests are extremely hard to find.

Some readers may be surprised that the American Robin, perhaps the most recognized of the early birds of spring, is not on this list. Robins are certainly found in much greater numbers starting in March in the park, but every year I see a few throughout the winter.

The appearance of these March species may not result in the frenzied excitement sometimes encountered in popular hotspots during the peak of warbler migration in May. For those of us ready for the first arrivals of spring, however, these early birds provide an occasion for celebration: the first migrants are returning!

——–

An earlier version of this essay was published in The Flyway, the newsletter of Detroit Audubon, in 2012.

Birds of Eliza Howell: Monthly Variations

Over the years, I have seen 145 different species of birds in Eliza Howell Park.

In January, 2018, I saw 22 species.

Both numbers are important. The total number of birds recorded is an important indication of the diversity of birds that visit the park. The monthly number is important for human visitors interested in observing birds at a particular time of the year.

The birds of Eliza Howell can be placed in the following categories:

(1) All seasons (or year-round residents). These species can be found in the park all seasons of the year (though not usually in the same numbers at all times). They do not migrate north-south or, if they do migrate, Eliza Howell is within both their summer and their winter range.

Approximately 21% of total species are all-seasons birds.

An example of an all-seasons EH bird is the Red-tailed Hawk.

Red tail hawk

          Photo by Margaret Weber

(2) Summer only. These species can usually be found in the park in the breeding season and are typically seen between spring and fall. They are birds that migrate south for the winter, but their summer range includes Eliza Howell.

Approximately 33% of total species are summer only.

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is one such species.

rose-breasted grosbk 2010

          Photo by Margaret Weber

(3) Migrants. These are the migrating species that breed further north and winter further south. They are in this area only as they pass through and can normally be found in a short timeframe – a couple weeks to a month or so. The peak spring migration through Detroit occurs in May and the peak fall migration month is in September. Some species pass through in April and October.

Approximately 41% of the total species are migrants.

The Magnolia Warbler is one of many migrating warblers that stop briefly in Eliza Howell each year.

Magnolia warbler

 

 

 

 

 

          Photo by Margaret Weber

(4) Winter visitors. These few species spend the breeding season further north and migrate south for the winter. The “south” for these species includes the Detroit area. They arrive in fall and leave in spring.

Approximately 5% of the bird species are winter visitors.

The American Tress Sparrow is one of the 5%.

tree sparrow 0111-1

          Photo by Margaret Weber

Group 3 is the only one referred to a “migrants” above, but species in groups 2 and 4 also migrate twice annually; however, they stay much longer. While the migrants that pass through in the spring and fall are the most numerous, they can easily be missed because they are in the area only for a short rest and refueling stop.

The most species are usually seen in September and May because all-seasons birds, most summer residents, and many migrants can be found in these months.

Average number of species seen per month over 13 years (2005 – 2017):

  • January       = 19
  • February    = 16
  • March         = 31
  • April            = 45
  • May             = 64
  • June             = 45
  • July              = 42
  • August        = 51
  • September = 69
  • October      = 55
  • November  = 32
  • December  = 24

Based on experience, I have a very good idea what birds to expect each time I visit Eliza Howell. But nature is always somewhat unpredictable, so I also expect the unexpected. Continue reading “Birds of Eliza Howell: Monthly Variations”