Backyard Birding: May Is the Best Time to Be a Birder

By Lee Halasz

Lee Halasz is a native of Australia and is a former conservation professional with the Queensland State Government. He and his family now reside in western Massachusetts, and he volunteered his time with us in 2015. This spring, we feature a series of bird stories Lee wrote to celebrate #birdyear. 

Spring is an amazing time to be outdoors appreciating the fresh buzz of life. While the season can start slowly, May arrives with a bang – it is the peak bird activity month of the year. For birders there is so much action in May, and you don’t want to miss a moment.

‘Birding’ is modern speak for ‘birdwatching,’ and it better acknowledges that appreciating birds includes tuning into their calls and songs, and thereby listening and not just looking at birds. Similarly, ‘birder’ is a modern term for ‘birdwatcher.’ Perhaps both new terms help broadcast the message that having an interest in birds is popular and growing.

birders

Birders spot migratory birds from the Freeland Boardwalk Overlook, a popular wildlife viewing spot at Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Credit: Mary Konchar)

 

Look and Listen for Color, Songs and Nests

Birds become especially prominent in May for a few reasons. Firstly, many species migrate back from southern USA, and Central and South America, where they have spent our cooler months. These returning birds increase the variety and number of birds around. Secondly, birds are breeding, and with breeding comes colorful plumages, prominent singing and nest building. And lastly, deciduous trees do not yet have a thick crown of leaves, so many birds are easier to see than they will be in summer.

Some returning birds just pass through, with their final destination further north. They often move through in ‘waves’ made up of many species but especially warblers, and it is both exciting to see many species together and a challenge to try to identify them all.

In May the dawn chorus of singing birds extends well into the day, with birds such as Baltimore orioles, gray catbirds and house wrens all contributing their vibrancy to the sound waves.

oriole

Male Baltimore oriole (Credit: David Brezinski/USFWS)

 

The fresh, colorful plumages of the males make birding in May particularly delightful. Similar-looking species can be more contrasting than other times of the year, making species identification easier.

While American goldfinches are here all year round, in spring the males ‘reappear’ in their bright yellow breeding plumage, after molting out of their drab winter garb. Ruby-throated hummingbirds return, and to see your first one of the season is an exciting May moment. Chipping sparrows reappear on our lawns, scarlet tanagers in forest trees and indigo buntings in fields.

ruby

Ruby-throated hummingbird near Athol, MA (Credit: Bill Thompson/USFWS)

 

The extra activity associated with nest building means birds more easily catch our eye. Eastern phoebes build their mud nests under the eaves of buildings, and eastern bluebirds and tree swallows will use various materials to tailor their nestbox.

nest box

An Eastern bluebird pair on a nest box (Credit: Kent Mason)

 By now American robins and northern cardinals can have chicks in the nest, and the chicks could fledge before May is out.

But sometime in June things start to go quiet. Birds are now busy getting food into the mouths of their chicks, while trying not to draw the attention of predators.

July and August are similarly more subdued, but by September birds begin migrating south, and there is once again a burst of activity, albeit a much smaller one than in May.

May provides a great opportunity to go birding, and perhaps see a species you’ve never seen before. Embrace the season and become a birder!

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