Scarlet Tanager, male, by Linda Petersen
Songbird sirens

(published 5-4-20)

Ask people why they watch birds and you’ll get all kinds of answers. A common one is that birds are beautiful. Nice to look at. Colorful.

Those who feel this way are in luck. This month, pandemic or not, is spring migration’s prime time. Some of bird world’s brightest beacons have just arrived. They’re here and available for viewing—potentially, right in our own backyards.

Here are five feathered flamethrowers to watch for in May:

Scarlet Tanager
I love being close by when somebody sees this bird for the first time. Then I help them pick up their jaw. The male scarlet tanager is shockingly beautiful and is surely a “spark bird” for many new birders. Even for veteran watchers, the first spring sighting of a tanager is a moment to savor.

Tanagers we see in May spent the winter in South America, and some will nest here. But this is a forest-loving species that can be hard to spot during the breeding season. They are easiest to see when they first arrive—before they choose a mate and before the trees get too leafy.

Tanagers are not feeder birds, so watch for them in the upper levels of deciduous trees, foraging for insects. Oaks are a favorite.

For this bird and the others here, knowing calls and songs is an advantage. To hear them, visit All About Birds, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

American Goldfinch
Here’s one that will visit feeders, thistle preferred. In fact, you might have hosted American goldfinches all winter long, when they looked nothing like they do now. In May, the males are in full breeding plumage. If you favor eye-popping yellow and admire vegetarians, this is your bird!

American Goldfinch, male, by Christian Goers
Goldfinches are strictly seed eaters, never insects, which explains how they can survive winters around here. But the species is migratory. Most of the individuals we see now traveled from the southern U.S. or northern Mexico.

Goldfinches possess some notable quirks. Their flight is undulating, like a roller coaster, and they say “potato chip” as they fly. Their tiny cup-shaped nests are often affixed to the ends of branches, even when this places their home directly above a roadway. That’s living on the edge!

Baltimore Oriole
As noted in my last column, this striking member of the blackbird family hankers for oranges and grape jelly. It might even try to sip from your hummingbird feeder.

Baltimore Oriole, male, by Linda Petersen
Baltimore oriole is the state bird of Maryland, naturally, and is named after Lord Baltimore, whose coat of arms featured orange and black. As a baseball fan, this species reminds me of Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken every time I see it.

I also think about this bird’s nest, an architectural wonder. The hanging basket, about six inches deep, is woven together with plant fibers and grasses. I read that one oriole spent 40 hours on the project! The nest is durable, too. On fall and winter bird walks we sometimes see the vacant pouches swaying in the breeze, usually at the ends of wispy limbs in cottonwood or willow trees.

Indigo Bunting
This is the only all-blue species common to our region. Indigo buntings arrive here from Central America, raise their families and start heading south in August.

Indigo Bunting, male, by Jackie Bowman
When the sun hits a male indigo just right, the look is electric. Yet, from a different angle, this bird may appear blackish. Fortunately, we can usually get a good view of this guy, thanks to its birder-friendly habit of perching in the open and singing persistently.

Indigos prefer brushy forest edges, roadsides and weedy fields. They occasionally visit backyard feeders but locating this bird will be easier in edge habitat at a park or forest preserve.

Blackburnian Warbler
This is your challenge bird—the hardest to observe in this five-pack of avian hotties. Unlike the previous four species, Blackburnian warblers are just passing through, on their way to nesting grounds in the North Woods.

The bird is named after Anna Blackburn, an English patron of ornithology in the 1700s. I wonder if she wore a fluorescent orange scarf. That would describe the throat of a male Blackburnian, the signature field mark of this beloved warbler.

Blackburnian Warbler, male, by Christian Goers
The flaming throat and upper breast is handy for spotting this bird, since you’ll probably be looking straight up to find it. It prefers the canopy of tall trees and like most warblers is constantly moving. I usually see a Blackburnian or two every year from my back patio, high in my neighbor’s massive locust.

The special colors of spring migration are not limited to a few birds, of course. The warbler family alone—about 25 species are possible this month—is spectacular. Consider this column a starter kit.

Remember to be alert for subtle beauty, too. Taken a long look at a female cardinal, lately? All birds are worth watching.

Happy birding this month, the most colorful time of year. Even from home there is plenty to see and appreciate.

Copyright 2020 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.