Chapter Thirty-Seven: Birds Coming And Going

NOTE: "Semi-Rough: A North Country Journal," is now available as a complete book, that includes these on-line essays and more. If you'd like a free pdf to download to your computer, send me a note at symbios@condortales.com and I'll email you a copy.

The thing I remember the most about spring mornings during my earliest visits to Camp was the bird chorus. While it was still dark in our deep woods, the birds - mostly robins, I think - would begin singing. They were soon joined by others, and for a half-hour or so, we were treated to what amounted to a wall of musical sound. It was amazing, and wonderful. I have heard other morning choruses, but nothing to come close to the Dummer Hill awakening.

We always got some melodious spring morning wake-up, but much less in more recent years. The Ice Storm, followed by major logging all over the Hill, reduced the amount of forest near us. Also, bird numbers overall were dropping significantly. Nevertheless, we still had some "traditions" to look forward to.

The Doldrums

20 July 1994 - This a good time to talk about our move into the “summer doldrums.” I mentioned the other day that the least flycatchers and ovenbirds had quieted down. That remains true, and now the rose-breasted grosbeaks, sapsuckers, and evening grosbeaks have “disappeared,” as well. Also, the lightning bugs seemed to have passed their peak; we still have some each night, but we haven’t had any “spectacles” for awhile.

Monday 12 August 1996 - Low 43F, high 76F. Great sleeping night, and generally lovely day. Mostly clear in the morning (high cirrus), clouds increasing through the day until pretty much light overcast by 1700.

We are in the "bird doldrums" now. Still a pretty good robin chorus about 0500, and some hermit thrushes singing every evening, but very little bird sound, otherwise.

Wednesday 23 July 1997 - Low 45F, high 72F. A little light ground fog in the early a.m.; otherwise, blue and pleasant. A few high strato-cumulus clouds developed toward evening. Bugs minor [although I did get a few bites on my evening walk - mosquito, and probably midge].

1800-1945 I walked out the Logging Road beyond the Cedar Brook fork to the pothole area, then back. Pretty quiet as far as bird sound - the bird doldrums have clearly set in. Almost everything I record now, I see (except red-eyed vireos and hermit thrushes), whereas about 70% of my bird records a few weeks ago were vocal.

Doldrums. I think I first heard the word when, as a youth, I read a lot of seafaring stories. Sailing ships in tropical waters would become becalmed - sometimes for weeks - when winds ceased to blow, and the whole oceanic world seemed to come to a halt. Sea men suffered in heat, humidity and boredom until Nature decided to once again turn them loose. They were in the Doldrums.

That seemed to me to be a good description of what happened on the Hill some time in late July. We had the spectacular songfest of late spring, then the continuous activity of birds coming and going with homemaking chores and caring for new offspring. And then - pretty much nothing. There were a few birds calling at dawn, and a few at dusk, but the daylight hours were almost devoid of avian activity. The birds were still there, but you had to really search to see movement or hear even a chirp. The doldrums.

Hummingbirds

A major exception to lack of bird activity during the Doldrums: ruby-throated hummingbirds. Through the summer and fall, they were a constant source of entertainment for us, as they fed and fought outside our windows.

I don't remember when we began feeding the hummers. It was probably sometime in the '80s when Sally got the first feeder set up for her mother. Calista enjoyed it immensely, especially during the many days when she was alone at Camp. When I retired in 1994, and we began spending six months at Camp each year, feeding hummingbirds became a regular part of our daily routine - one that sometimes took quite an effort. The first year, we set up one feeder.

18 June 1994 - We got a hummingbird feeder set up this morning, and the first bird [a female] was there within 15 minutes.

Sunday 17 July 1994 - Low 56F. Light, high haze in the morning; burned off quickly to just a little high cirrus. More clouds moved in as the day progressed, some looking thunder-stormy (but didn't develop). High 77F.

Sally and Shawn heard coyotes howling at 0600 for about 10 minutes. I didn't wake up. It seems like the "bird doldrums" have begun; it's been several days since I've heard ovenbirds and least flycatchers, for example. On the other hand, the "hummingbird wars" were at their max today. There were probably 4 different females and 1 male. The females wouldn't let one another feed. There were very few times when one could sit unmolested for more than 5 or 10 seconds. It went on all day, with real aggression - almost hitting one another on occasion.

In May 1995, we started with one feeder, quickly put out two more, and then a fourth. The hummers came.

Sunday 21 May 1995 - Sally got two more hummingbird feeders set up. The instant reward was at least 4 hummers - 2 males and 2 females - that fed all day.

Wednesday 24 May 1995 - Sally put up a fourth hummingbird feeder. We are sure we’ve had at least 6 different hummers, 3 males and 3 females.

Tuesday 30 May 1995 - Sally had 6 female hummingbirds simultaneously, so with the various males around we have had as many as ten individuals since they started coming.

As more and more hummers used the feeders, we began to watch their behavior, not just their numbers.

Tuesday 6 June 1995 - Male hummingbirds are much more evident at the feeders this year, and much more aggressive. The females tend to bunch up at a feeder at certain times - sometimes 4 or 5. The males just tend to sit there, not drinking and making sure no one else does.

Wednesday 2 August 1995 - The "hummingbird wars" are getting outrageous. They are all females and/or immatures, and there will be a half dozen on a feeder at one time, and others swooping around. They are constantly chasing each other, whirring wings and sometimes hitting one another, and the food is going down at an amazing rate.

In 1994, with maybe five hummingbirds at the feeders regularly, we thought the "wars" were really something. With maybe ten in 1995, we had to rethink our ideas about hummingbird activity. In subsequent years, our previous adjectives proved not at all useful.

Wednesday 17 July 1996 - Sally spent a lot of time feeding hummingbirds. They are voracious! There are certainly 10 around, and possibly a half-dozen more at times. Most are not adult males, but whether or not some are this year's immatures is still a question.

Wednesday 23 July 1997 - The immature hummingbirds are out in force now - we had seven around one feeder this evening, and that probably wasn’t half what’s in the vicinity.

Friday 10 July 1998 - First thing this morning, we had 9 immature hummingbirds on one feeder. With the various adults, there must be fifteen or more around. We also saw several out on the Logging Road.

Sunday 16 July 2000 - Hummingbird numbers are up decidedly, as this year’s youngsters are beginning to appear at the feeders. There are probably ten or more hummers using the feeders, now.

Thursday 26 July 2001 - The hummingbirds are keeping Sally busy filling the feeders. There are a dozen or so regulars, a bunch of them this year’s young, and they are going through immense amounts of food.

Friday 16 July 2004 - We have lots of immature hummingbirds around now - not up to the abundance of past years, but there must be close to a dozen hummers in the vicinity. As often happens, one adult male tries to dominate all the feeders. He lands on the backs of females and immatures, and rides them off the feeders.

Saturday 3 June 2006 – We were able to confirm six male hummingbirds at one feeder today. We’d already counted at least six females, so we have a minimum of 12 birds at the house. I don’t think we’ve ever had that many adults simultaneously. We should have quite a swarm when the young leave their nests.

There are pros and cons to feeding birds, among the concerns being that supplying easy food makes birds dependent, and that it may disrupt their normal arrival and departure times. Clearly, our hummingbird feeding was attracting a lot of birds to our windows, and it is possible that having a ready source of food may have increased local nesting, or nestling survival. Still, our hummers were not using just our feeders; we often saw them feeding on both native plants and our garden varieties. And no matter how long we left the feeders out in the fall, no hummer ever stuck around past early September, their usual migration time. We were very grateful to have their company, particularly during The Doldrums.

The Wave

Tuesday 22 August 1995 - While I was down the Hill shopping, Sally had a little wave of dickybirds come through. She identified chickadees, white-breasted nuthatch, *yellow warbler (not a regular on the hill), Nashville warbler, and black-and-white warbler. The black-and-white spent some time going around the outside frame of the northern east window!

Tuesday 2 September 1997 - Quite a wave of warblers in the apple tree and the cellar hole willows this morning. As usual, it lasted only a half-hour or so, then quiet the rest of the day.

Saturday 15 August 1998 - Almost every day now, there are little waves of warblers and other dickybirds passing through - easy to miss them if you don’t happen to be looking at the right 15-minute period.

Monday 23 August 1999 - There was a wonderful movement of dickybirds in the morning - some warblers, but vireos, bluebirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and blue jays most abundant. As usual, it only lasted an hour or so. The bluebirds and white-throated sparrows are really hitting the elderberries.

Friday 6 August 2004 - A really good “wave” of dicky birds this morning. (Interesting, because last year on this day and the day before there were the first significant “waves”) There were at least six species of warblers, and miscellaneous other things. I had a list of 18 species in a half-hour. Among the warblers was one that was almost certainly a blackpoll. I’ve never seen one at Camp, although they are common at higher elevations nearby.

The Doldrums end at Camp some time in August when fall migration begins. The woods and field are still pretty quiet most of the time, because many of our local birds are done with us for the year, and are inconspicuously joining the bands passing through. I see in my journals that I began referring to "the waves" as early as 1975, and that's how it works. We'll go days without seeing anything but a few local blue jays, a flicker, or a raven, then suddenly every tree will be full of warblers, vireos, and other migrant songbirds. (In early October, the "wave" will consist of kinglets, chickadees, and nuthatches.) A half-hour or hour later, they will all be gone. We might not experience another event for several days, or maybe not again that year.

Silent Summers (and Springs and Falls)?

Sunday 9 September 2001 - Bird activity has picked up in the past week, but surprisingly there haven’t been any significant waves of warblers. We have had a couple of vireo days, when waves of red-eyes and solitary vireos were obviously moving through. Today, there was one [maybe two] Philadelphia vireo(s) with the solitarys. This is the third year in a row that our Philadelphia vireo record has come in the first part of September [3 Sept. to 9 Sept.].

Monday 15 September 2003 - So far, we have been pretty much “waveless,” as far as dickybird activity. By this time of year, we have usually had a couple of pretty good mini-movements of warblers and vireos, but we’re still pretty much limited to robins and blue jays.

Sunday 28 August 2005 - There was a very minor dickybird “wave” this morning - a few nuthatches, warblers and vireos - only worth mentioning because there has been so little bird activity this summer.

Tuesday 5 September 2006 – The dicky bird “wave” we had this morning was not only the best of the year, it was the best of several years. I only got a chance to sample the hundreds of birds that moved through for about an hour, but still saw 18 species, including 8 warblers. Among the species was one Wilson’s warbler, only the 2nd Hill record.

Friday 14 September 2007 – Here it is mid-September, and we still haven’t had any real dickybird “waves.” Four or five birds at a time is the best we’ve done, and that only a couple times. It’s getting late. I wonder if we’ll see any real migration.

After 2000, we witnessed the fall songbird migration less frequently than in previous years, and the magnitude of each "wave" was usually less than expected. I was sorry not to have the good late summer birding days, but didn't think anything was wrong. After the Ice Storm and all the subsequent logging on the Hill, the local habitat was quite different, and could have been influencing the bird movements. But then we started losing our local birds, too.

Tuesday 13 June 2006 – This seems an amazingly quiet bird summer. Other than the big number of hummingbirds, we seldom see or hear more than half a dozen species a day. I haven’t done a lot of active birding, but the shortage of "the usuals" (like goldfinches and warblers) is noticeable. Also, it’s sad not to have resident tree swallows and phoebes.

Sunday 10 June 2007 –We haven’t seen a tree swallow on the Hill this year. Their box tipped over in the winter, and it may be that they scouted before we got here, and didn’t find any reason to stick around. However, Cordwells don’t have their usual pairs this year, either.

Another remarkable absence this spring is the least flycatcher. I haven’t seen or heard one. They are usually one of our most conspicuous early residents.

Saturday 29 September 2007 –I saw seven species of birds today, but only nine individuals! It’s getting pretty late now for any significant dickybird movement this year.

I wrote to New Hampshire Audubon about our dearth of birds. They said that fall migration in other parts of the State seemed pretty normal, and thought the absence of least flycatchers and tree swallows might have been the result of bad weather late in the spring. That’s a possible explanation, I suppose, but the shortages here were truly spectacular - and it wasn't just this year. I guess we’ll see next year if numbers are normal again.

In June 2008, I started to write my thoughts about what was going on with the birds on the Hill. I wrote: I probably should wait until next fall before I write this, but I have a strong feeling that I would be saying the same thing then that I'm saying now. For a variety of reasons, some explainable and some not, many species of birds of the northern forests are in the midst of a drastic decline. It isn't happening just in New Hampshire; here in our woodsy backyard in northwest Oregon - where a few years ago one could expect our trees to be alive with migrants on a number of days in May - this spring's flight seemed to consist of a few orange-crowned warblers, two Wilson's warblers, a Nashville warbler, and one western tanager. I hear comparable reports from around the country.

Ten years later, I'm sorry to report that the bird declines have continued - in New Hampshire, in Oregon, and throughout much of North America. We weren't around after 2008 to personally witness the New Hampshire situation, but in 2011 New Hampshire Audubon put out a report, "The State of New Hampshire's Birds - A Conservation Guide." They rated every New Hampshire bird population as either increasing, stable, or decreasing. Of the species we considered representative of the Hill, 60 per cent were decreasing, while less than 20 per cent were considered to be increasing in numbers. Our least flycatchers were among those listed as suffering great declines; the status of tree swallow populations was considered uncertain. About half of our warblers were on the decreasing list, the other half considered stable.

Nationally, the increases and decreases of songbirds represented on the Hill are similar to the New Hampshire figures: 57 per cent decreasing, 43 per cent increasing. [Partners in Flight, Landbird Conservation Plan - 2016 Revision for Canada and Continental United States.] The species in Oregon are different than in New Hampshire, but the percentages of decline versus increase or stable are about the same, 60 and 40 percent. Especially pertinent to us in the areas we know best, the greatest declines by far are in the populations of aerial insectivores - birds that get most of their food from flying insects. Our Dummer Hill flycatchers and swallows - the first birds we got concerned about - are in that category.

There are certainly things that can be done to arrest (or at least, slow) the losses of some species of songbirds but, overall, it looks pretty grim. Two factors seem to be having the most effect on the songbirds of the United States and Canada: progressive climate change, forcing birds into less acceptable habitats; and degradation of wintering areas in Central and South America, including massive deforestation and continued heavy use of pesticides. Unfortunately, neither factor is manageable by the United States and Canada, alone. Even if our current government wasn't controlled by those who deny, or don't care about, climate change, we are probably past the point where anything can be done that would be significant enough to save the birds - or to save us.

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