The Birds of Summer

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks refuel.

I know that summer is nearly here when the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks refuel at my feeders every late April-early May. These males showed up last Saturday. Usually, the males arrive first, then the females join them and linger a few days after the males leave to claim breeding turf. That pattern held this year. The females showed up late Sunday, and I saw one lonely female hanging out at the feeder this morning. Their massive beaks demolish the safflower seeds I offer at astonishing speeds. But I deem it worth the price of seed to see these lovely birds every spring, and again in the fall when they pass through on the way to their winter hangouts. You have to admire the feisty Chickadee in the photo above as it stares down the Grosbeaks, all of which are about three times its size.

By the time the Grosbeaks arrived, I had spotted a male Indigo Bunting hunting bugs in our backyard a week earlier. He’s there most every day now, so we suspect there may be a nesting female somewhere in the nearby shrubby area that is, shall we say, less than manicured.

The warblers, buntings, and many other summer visitors seem to appreciate all of our wilder areas. Our bird populations and species diversity have increased enormously over the 20+ years we’ve lived here. Truly, if you build it (i.e., provide their habitat requirements), they will come.

Seeing these two species caused me to mentally tick off my list of expected summer visitors. I’ve spotted the hyperactive Blue-gray Gnatcatchers zipping through the underbrush several times, and I spied one with nesting material in its mouth as I was watering my vegetable garden yesterday morning. These tiny dynamos are insect-eating machines, and always welcome in my gardens.

Just two days ago, I finally heard the hunting chip-chip call of a Summer Tanager. I rarely see these denizens of our summer treetops, but I hear them often as they move along branches hunting bugs. Occasionally one will visit a bird bath — always a treat.

When I heard the Summer Tanager, I realized I hadn’t yet heard the unmistakable call of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I always associate their calls with thick humidity and searing heat. Sure enough, yesterday, one called from the Northern Red Oak that towers over my home — just in time for our record high heat.

The winter-visiting birds have mostly departed. Although Northern Flickers are reported to be year-round residents of my region, I haven’t heard or seen one for over a month, which is normal for my Piedmont yard. They always vanish in the summer.

Likewise, the White-throated Sparrows no longer call plaintively in the early morning. Most have left, although I spotted one at the feeder this morning — probably what birders call a non-breeder.

All the various warblers are back. I can hear them, but I rarely see them. I’m hoping a Blue Grosbeak will visit a feeder when I’m watching. They usually nest in the wild blackberry thicket on the other side of our creek.

Last but never least, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird males have been back for about a month. The females are probably here too, but I haven’t seen one yet. Although I’m keeping fresh sugar water available in the feeder by my kitchen window, I’ve never seen more than one male stop by for a drink. However, I’m hearing their chatter all over my yard.

One male scolded me yesterday when I unintentionally startled him as I watered a squash plant. He was intent on visiting a patch of still-blooming Eastern Columbines, and he didn’t see me until he almost flew into me. I suspect the abundance of blooming flowers in my yard is the reason my hummingbird feeder is unpopular. That will change as summer heat slows blooming, and fledglings seek easy food sources.

The rhythms and dances of Piedmont summer are building to their usual crescendo, which I associate with the Summer Solstice. The thrumming of cicadas should punctuate the air any day now. The blinking lights of fireflies grow more numerous with every passing warm night. And the Cope’s Gray Treefrogs chorus lustily every time the humidity rises enough to hint at the possibility of a thunderstorm.

All I need now to complete this Piedmont summer scene are a few ripe tomatoes. And the good news is that every tomato plant in my garden is already sporting promising green globes. Oh yes, I do believe I can almost taste that Piedmont summer goodness.

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