Early Migrants

Eastern bluebird on bluebird nesting box

Eastern bluebird on bluebird nesting box

The rain was steadily coming down as we gathered inside the Visitor Center for our 1 o’clock walk to look for birds that recently migrated to the area. Thanks to a Dr. Stan Temple, who is once again teaching Wildlife Ecology at the University (I swear that he was retired…!), seven half-soaked students (one of them 100% soaked!) arrived gung-ho to learn about birds.

Since the rain was persistent and people were already dripping wet, we decided to spend some time indoors learning. We looked at a few of the Visitor Center display specimens of migrant birds expected this spring and summer, including the eastern bluebird, scarlet tanager and hummingbird. We learned about the migration routes these birds follow and marveled at a teeny bird traveling so many miles, and in some cases 500+ miles over water, with no gas station stops. One of the bird migrants we look forward to hearing and seeing every spring is the American woodcock, also on display for our viewing pleasure. The woodcocks are back at the Arboretum from their southeastern United States winter homes, but 1 o’clock in the afternoon is too early in the day to see or hear them. Woodcock activity at the Arboretum can be observed after the sun has set. To look and listen for them with an expert guide, come to the Arboretum Saturday April 23 at 7 p.m. for our annual sky dance night walk.

To our delight, the rain slowed to a drizzle. We divvied up umbrellas and braved the unpredictable weather in search of newly migrated birds. We began in the horticultural gardens and the first birds we laid eyes on were the American robins and the dark-eyed juncos. Though there are plenty of newly migrated robins around Madison, the robins we saw in the gardens were likely some of the resident robins who stay at the Arboretum all winter long, able to survive with access to the springs. As for the junco flock, those little gray, brown, and white birds will be on their way north soon to their breeding grounds, which include much of Canada and Alaska.

Other birds present in the gardens were the wild turkeys. We observed beautiful tom turkeys in their brilliant red, blue, and shimmery breeding garbs looking to find a mate. These birds are not migrants however; they live in southern Wisconsin year round. Shortly after our oohing and ahing at the turkeys, we did get to see another migrant bird, the song sparrow. Such a sweet little song they were singing (hear the song at Cornell University’s All About Birds), frolicking about in the pinetum. Also in that area, the house finch males, with their bright red heads and breasts, were singing their hearts out. These birds live year round in southern Wisconsin. Their song is one of my favorites, it is a wonderful sign of spring. . . . Speaking of beloved spring sounds, we of course heard the northern cardinals singing constantly throughout our walk.

Heading into Wingra Woods from the gardens, we listened closely for warblers and woodpeckers (most of the woodpeckers that live at the Arboretum are not migrants, but are always fun to see and hear). Unfortunately the lighting was poor, and the birds up high looked just like small dark objects. It was not raining by this time, but it was very gray. I was able to get a small bird in sight with my binoculars, which Naturalist Levi Wood (one of the Arboretum’s expert birders) was certain was a warbler, but I could not make out any of its colors. And we couldn’t identify it by sound because it was not singing . . . ah well, can’t win ’em all. Other than that, we did enjoy some fun woodpecker observations but did not pick up any other migrants that afternoon. Suffice it to say, 1 o’clock in the afternoon is not the greatest time of day to go birding. If you really want to see as many birds as possible in a short time, get out in early morning or early evening.

—Lisa Andrewski