A personal awareness of one’s natural surroundings can provide daily discoveries, wonder, and even stir the soul. It also makes one keenly aware of the natural seasons. Even though the official “first day of spring” on the calendar is listed as March 20th, “spring” from a birding perspective is defined differently as it relates to a specific set of behaviors shown by the animals that surround us. Since these birds may migrate from distant points even birds within the same area may show entirely different cycles at the same time of year.
My home in south Florida sits in a subtropical eco-zone or biome based on the local weather patterns and plant species which occur here. At this latitude, our first “spring” migrant species, the Purple Martin, will typically show up as early as mid January when the earliest male “scouts” will return from the tropics to begin searching for nest locations. This is a period of time when the Northern portions of North America are still solidly locked in the grips of winter with much of the coldest weather and heaviest snow falls yet to come. So even as these first Martins are migrating north, wintering waterfowl species are filing south retreating from the cold freezes and large snow falls which often force them to retreat northern locales.
The second species to migrate across the Gulf of Mexico and return from the southern tropics in “spring” are the elegant and long-winged Swallow-tailed Kites. The first of these birds will typically be recorded in mid-February.
Yesterday as I was standing in my front yard, I was instinctively scanning the sky to the southwest with binoculars in hopes of seeing my first Swallow-tailed Kite. I knew the date and the strong, warm, southwest winds were very favorable for migration, and while I personally did not see one, I was certainly not surprised to note the first reports of these graceful migrants reported from the gulf coast of Florida yesterday. That strong warm wind was ideal to assist a bird in streaming straight across the Gulf of Mexico from Veracruz, Mexico or one of the Caribbean islands. Soon more will follow and their sharp, piping cries will echo over my neighborhood as they engage in their courtship displays.
Even though this system dumped over a foot of snow across the northeastern United States, it produced strong southerly winds that made brought spring here in Florida. Following the warm breezes that blew overnight, I awoke and found my yard & neighborhood transformed.
Even from inside my office I could hear the unmistakably loud “ReeeeP!” calls of two Great Crested Flycatchers setting up territories in my backyard. I hadn’t seen nor heard one in the yard since last November during migration, so I went outside to capture an image and found the newly arrived Great Crested sharing a branch with my winter resident Eastern Phoebe (who will migrate back north come March).
Then another bird I hadn’t seen or heard all winter piped up, “Zhee-zhee-zhee-zhee-Zheerup!” the buzzy ascending call of the beautiful, Northern Parula had also taken up its territorial song in the yard.
In contrast, wintering “Myrtle” Yellow-rumped Warblers gave flat “Chup” call notes from the same tree, a House Wren chattered & Gray Catbirds gave nasal “mew”ing calls from the brush below. These other birds would remain with us well into April, before migrating out to begin their breeding cycles up north. Some of these birds will even linger long enough to meet the new fledged young Northern Parulas before they leave!
Even though a Florida winter is shorter and less grueling than at northern climes, it always makes me happy when the new spring breaks, and I’m here to report that the locals have spoken & winter has ended here at least!