Tag Archives: songbirds

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 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.


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-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!

Backyard Birding: Inspire Kids to be Birders with the Help of Neighborhood Nestwatch

This year we mark the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty that was signed on Aug. 16, 1916. This  Migratory Bird Treaty, and three others that followed, form the cornerstones of our efforts to conserve birds that migrate across international borders.

In celebration of the centennial, we are sharing a series of Backyard Birding blogs, written by USFWS volunteer and enthusiastic birder, Lee Halasz. Celebrating the centennial of the first treaty allows us to bring together those who have contributed to its success, and to galvanize efforts to protect migratory birds for generations to come.

song sparrow -- March Neighborhood Nestwatch

Song sparrow (Credit: Stephanie L. Clymer)

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. 

Have you ever wanted to catch and tag birds right in your own backyard? With the help of the Smithsonian Institution?

That’s exactly what my daughter and I did, and it was a fantastic experience.

One morning a couple of springs ago, my then six-year-old daughter was feeling like she might be getting sick and, since it was the end of a long school year, I let her stay home.

Coincidentally, that day I was having a visit from the Springfield chapter of Neighborhood Nestwatch, a citizen science program run by the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Forest Service. The program investigates the survival of birds and their nesting success in people’s yards by involving citizens in collecting information about birds. Through this involvement people gain a greater appreciation and understanding of their local birds.

My daughter had previously shown a minor interest in birds so I was curious to see what she would think of this experience.

Helping Catch – and Release – Some Backyard Birds

After some quick introductions, the staff got to work with setting up ‘mist nets’ made of almost-invisible fine black mesh. If a bird flies into the net, it falls into a ‘pouch’ in the net, where it can safely and easily be picked up and handled. The calls of several target bird species, including black-capped chickadee, northern cardinal and song sparrow, were played nearby in the hope of luring in local individuals of those species.

Mist net -- March Neighborhood Nestwatch

Mist net (Credit: Stephanie L. Clymer)


We were soon catching birds, and it was amazing to be able to see them up close and in detail. Individuals of the target species had colored bands placed on their legs, to allow them to be recognized by me (and others) in the future, just through casual observation rather than having to recapture them.

I knew of a few nests in our yard, and the staff set up data sheets for me to continue observing and recording those nests, and any I others I found.

nest -- March Neighborhood Nestwatch

Nest (Credit: Stephanie L. Clymer)

Inspiring Local Bird Conservation

My daughter was taken under the wing (so to speak) by one of the staff, who took her around checking the nets and talking to her about birds. She was even able to release several birds, including a hummingbird, by having them placed on their backs in her hand.

Well, my daughter was inspired. Afterwards she wanted her own bird field guide, and in the following weeks she would look up any birds she saw. The ultimate experience came one day when I found a dead black-billed cuckoo. I showed it to her and was about to bury it when she shouted, “It has a band!” We contacted the U.S. Bird Banding Laboratory with the number on the band, and were told it was caught just two weeks earlier on the Canadian side of Lake Erie, apparently a very curious migration pattern.

During the breeding season our local pair of cardinals (both banded during the visit) had five nests. While two nests failed (the eggs didn’t hatch), the mid-spring nest fledged three chicks, and two later nests each fledged a single chick.

The visit was a fantastic morning immersed in birds. I have been able to confirm that many of the banded birds survived into the next year and beyond, but it appears the male cardinal did not. There is a new male flying around with the banded female though…maybe more nests will be in our future.

cardinal -- March Neighborhood Nestwatch

Male Northern Cardinal (Credit: Stephanie L. Clymer)

How To Get Involved in the Neighborhood Nestwatch

If you love birding and have ever observed a bird nest in your own backyard, you can help scientists in their effort to understand how well backyard birds are doing. Visit the program’s website to find out how you can get involved – early spring is the perfect time to register and start looking for nests.


Join us next week for another Backyard Birding post featuring the American Woodcock!

black and white warbler

Growing chocolate for the birds

It’s conservation abroad! Five 30-acre southern Belize farms have begun the conversion to shade-grown cacao.

Farmers standing in front of nursery

Our partner, the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education, tells us the community and farmers were excited to show off the new nursery that they and BFREE have set up. Credit: BFREE

What makes it outside the box? The funding comes from a $3.7 million restoration settlement with companies responsible for contaminating the land and water around an Ashland, Mass., industrial site. The settlement was reached in 1998 for natural resources harmed by mercury and other contaminants at the Nyanza Chemical Superfund site.

An example of a cacao forest, which provides habitat for overwintering birds. Credit: BFREE

An example of a cacao forest, which provides habitat for overwintering birds. Credit: BFREE

How is it going down? Interested farmers will transition from intensive agricultural to sustainable agroforestry for cacao. Cacao, unlike pineapple and banana, can be grown under a mixed forest that provides great feeding and resting habitat for neotropical migratory songbirds and nesting habitat for resident songbirds. Farmers will be trained and receive funds to reforest cleared land and develop shade-grown agriculture, providing significant cost-effective benefits to birds and remaining economically sustainable for the local community!

What birds will benefit? Species likely to benefit include a number of songbirds: red-eyed vireo, yellow warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, magnolia warbler, black-and-white warbler, northern waterthrush, gray catbird, least flycatcher, eastern kingbird, wood thrush. Many of these were also impacted from contamination resulting from the Nyanza site.

black and white warbler

Black and white warbler. Credit: Jeff Koch

Who’s doing it? The funding was allocated with public input by the government natural resource agencies in Massachusetts (called natural resource trustees), including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education is overseeing the effort on the ground.

Settlement funds will also go to 10 other projects restoring migratory and coldwater fish habitat; protect land to conserve wildlife habitat; create public access to the river in Ashland and Sudbury; create a nature preserve in Framingham and Ashland; and control invasive aquatic weeds in the Sudbury River to improve recreation and wildlife habitats and diversity.

These natural resource damage settlements fund restoration projects where the contamination occurred or at an alternate location which, when restored, provides a suitable replacement for the injured or lost resources. Sometimes the responsible party donates land to be restored and protected. Restoration can also be in the form of restoring populations of injured resources such as birds or freshwater mussels.

In this situation, funds are going to help birds that visit the Sudbury River watershed but that need conservation in their wintering grounds. With a relatively small investment of restoration dollars, we are already having an impact on restoring habitat for neotropical migrants in Central America.

Read more about the Belize project in the restoration plan.