Nature Notes: Birds of a Feather

Most of the birds are out foraging for insects, fruit, seeds, and the like away from residential areas

   People have been asking, “Where have the birds gone?” There are very few birds in my own backyard here in Noyac, An occasional blue jay, robin, Carolina wren, but no steady comers with the exception of crows, which visit regularly beginning at dawn.
    On the other hand, Terry Sullivan, who lives near the water’s edge in Sag Harbor, has no shortage of feathered friends. More often than not his birdbath is filled to capacity.
    Most of the birds are out foraging for insects, fruit, seeds, and the like away from residential areas. That old adage “birds of a feather, flock together” is particularly applicable at this time of year. When songbirds migrate, they fly together, before they migrate, they gather together, feed together, and molt together. Those marvelous spring feathers that are not only perfectly hewn, but also gaudily colorful, are great for courting and defending territories, but by the time August rolls around, tend to be worn out.
    Many of the most brightly colored ones, notably the males of the species, trade in those advertising feathers, for ones that will not only get them to points south, but when there, will make them harder to see among the greens that predominate on their wintering grounds. Thus the bright reds of the male scarlet tanagers and the brilliant oranges of the male Baltimore orioles are traded in for greens and yellows, cryptic colors which will hide them as they forage among the tropical vegetation until spring sends them north.
    Competitive singing mostly has to do with inviting females and maintaining territories in the spring and early summer. Competition ends in August and song gives way to species-specific call notes that are used to keep members of a certain feather together. They are particularly useful come the Christmas count season in December. Birders with good ears don’t have to see the utterer to identify a given species; the call notes are as telltale as the bird’s size, coloration, and form. Indeed, with the advance of high tech gizmos and applications, many Christmas counters now play a given call from their smartphones, evoking a return call from a real bird.
    In late August and September we play host to four kinds of birds, according to their habits. There are those such as the mockingbirds, blue jays, cardinals, house sparrows, starlings, Carolina wrens, and house finches that overwinter here. They look the same in the winter as they do in the spring. A few, such as the mockingbird and Carolina wren, maintain winter territories and defend them with song. Then there are the migrators, ones that leave Long Island for the south and others from farther north that stop over to rest and feed before traveling on.
    Oddly, perhaps, there is a small group of wrong-way birds, southern terns and such, that reach Long Island from the south as they wander north looking for food or, maybe, just checking things out. Some of these are considered “overshoots” or “accidentals” — they’ve gone too far. Others come from the west, such as the western kingbird and the dickcissel.
    Then there are a large number of northern species including songbirds, waterfowl, seabirds, and raptors that annually overwinter here. Among them are three species of scoters, or sea ducks, the evening grosbeak, pine siskin, winter wren, Ipswich sparrow, rough-legged hawk, goshawk, and purple sandpiper, to name a few. There are one or more species for each available habitat — forest, grassland, freshwater, seawater, dunes, beaches, and shores.
    I should add that there is a fifth category of species, some of the members of which refuse to migrate south with their brethren and stay the winter here. Among them are the Canada Goose, robin, towhee, and bluebird. If they make it through the winter, they have an advantage come spring. They don’t have to fight man and the elements to make it back here to carve out territories and begin the nesting season — they’re already here.
    Among these stay-behinds and winter loiterers are birds, such as eagles, that used to breed here but no longer do. The hope is that they will stick around for the four or five years it takes to reach maturity and settle down here in one of our many open spaces. Such has already occurred during this millennium, at least a couple of times. Turkey vultures have started breeding in Montauk, and the American raven as of late now breeds in Hampton Bays.