Bird Nerd

Northern Cardinal

Not a migrant, but my best shot.

It’s spring and that’s when I turn into a bird nerd. The warblers are migrating!

This year I started early because in the past, not being truly matured into an adult birder, I’ve realized too late what’s going on and missed the bulk of the migrants.

Yes, migrants. Don’t tell Donald Trump, but millions of undocumented workers soar over the border every year from Mexico and parts farther south. They come here specifically to drop anchor babies by the gazillions. But just like other migrants, they provide a benefit as well. In this case, eating bugs by the trazillions.

But enough politics. It’s time to bird. Birding is a verb. I don’t spend my time watching birds. I bird. I bird, therefore I am.

So what’s the fuss all about?

First, the birds are beautiful. The males sport bright colors intended to attract females in a reverse of human behavior where it’s the girls who tart up. Look for that splash of yellow or bright red or deep blue.

Second, the sounds. Beautiful, trilling, high-pitched songs explode out of these tiny avian wonders. From elaborate compositions to insect-like buzzing or plagiarized copies of others’ efforts, the variety is endless. Perhaps the most common around here, the robin (not really a migrant) begins shouting from the trees at 3:45 a.m. Every. Damn. Morning.

But thrill to the white-throated sparrow’s “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” Or the towhee’s “Drink your tea.”

Those who can “bird by ear” are the true masters. Oh, to be able to pick out a faint trill and know it’s a palm warbler and not a pine warbler. I once spent hours searching for the source of a beautiful, varied song, only to find it was a robin. Recently, I searched out a loud, unfamiliar song and tracked it down to…a tufted titmouse? They apparently have one of the biggest songbooks in birding.

Third, there’s the Sherlock Holmes aspect. You hear an intriguing birdsong. Where is it coming from? Who’s making that sound? Instead of a magnifying glass, you use binoculars.

Some birds like to hang out at the tippy top of a tree, others hug the trunk. All those blue jays making a ruckus around that evergreen? Chances are there’s an owl in there, or a hawk.

Is the bird’s tail wagging? What’s it eating? All are clues to identification, in addition to the color, size, bill shape, etc. It’s a puzzle waiting to be solved.

Last, but not least, you get to spend time outdoors, in beautiful weather (or not) after a dreary winter. Mornings are best, and it’s not always easy to drag yourself out, but the earlier the better. It can be cold, but the sun strengthens and warms you as the hours pass. The air smells of flowering trees and warming earth. Before the trees leaf out, it’s easier to see small birds flitting among the branches. You become familiar with trees—oaks are popular source of food for migrating warblers.

Put them all together, and time flies while you are having fun tracking down a small LBB (little brown bird), trying to sort out what it is. It flits among newly budding twigs high up, searching for worms or blossoms. Then it lands in full sun and flashes a bright red patch on the top of its head. Quick, grab the Sibley! Here it is. Ruby crowned kinglet—one of the cutest creatures that oh-so-intelligent designer came up with. Bright dark eye, tiny, needle-like beak. Overall, a bit drab, until he flashes that red cap!

The only downside is that this migration lasts a few short weeks before the birds move farther north to their chosen breeding ground or pair up and quiet down as they build their home and raise the kids. Best to shut up then or risk attracting predators.

Which reminds me. If you have a cat, please keep it indoors, especially during nesting season. I know all the arguments for why you want Fluffy to roam free, but cats kill more than a billion birds a year. In the U.S.! Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. The poor birds have enough going on with global warming and habitat loss.

It’s tough being a bird. All those months when they are wintering down south, they are relying on us to keep their summer homes neat and ready for them to return. In exchange, they fill our mornings with music, our skies with colors.

Of course, you can’t just sit in your back yard and wait for the birds to stop by, unless your house is next to a wildlife sanctuary. You need to go where the birds are. For me, that’s easy.

I’m not far from one of the best spring birding spots in the Northeast—Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Yes, a cemetery. And thankfully, they’ve embraced the spring birder. Founded in 1831 as a “rural cemetery” to alleviate overcrowding in Boston’s cemeteries, Mount Auburn was and remains a beautiful park. The fact that there are also a lot of famous people buried there is a plus. The cemetery helpfully provides maps and schedules of when to expect the various birds migrating through.

I’m also near another prime spot: Mass Audubon’s Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, which I wrote about in “Feed the Birds” and will probably write about again. It’s becoming my “soul home.” A place where I can get away from the stresses of life and myself. Everyone needs such a place. The Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts is another of mine, but I don’t get there often enough.

Sadly, however, last weekend was pretty dismal for birding—cold, damp. No sun to warm my back. Next weekend is Big Day, a competitive team event worldwide to identify the most bird species in a single day. I will not be competing, but the fact that they chose May 14, gives me hope that I haven’t missed the bulk of the warbler migration. Unless it rains. Again.

All this said, I am not a hard-core birder. The sad fact is that each spring I need to relearn all the birds I discovered the previous year. I also don’t care for the “see it, check it, move on,” competitive aspect some birders prefer. Once I find a bird, I enjoy watching it. If I can see it make its song, all the better. Grab a worm? Cool!


For more:

You can’t go wrong exploring the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website. (Join and support their work!)

If you live in the Boston area, check out Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Mass Audubon

For others, there’s eBird.

There are also apps for your smart phone. Just Google that and try some.

It’s Catbirds vs. Cats…and the Cats Are Winning,” Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

Cats kill more than one billion birds each year,” Science News, 2013.





  1. Doreen Perrine · · Reply

    I’m an amateur bird nerd myself, Elaine, so good on us! I love all the aerial dynamics and birdsong that are happening in my yard as we speak. As for Trump, I’m envisioning him in a Hitchcock remake of “The Birds.” Not to sound evil but . . .

    1. I like that Hitchcock imagery for Trump. Long live the birds!

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