Good morning and welcome to another installment of Around the Feeder!
Today I’ll be talking a bit about birding in the Summer. When I started out with my birdwatching journey, it was just turning to Autumn. My first group trip was in October, when I watched Brown Pelicans at Pig’s Eye Lake. Over the winter, I got really into watching my bird feeder. By the time spring rolled around, I got consumed in other things and didn’t really get back into birds until it was cold again. Between seeing birds primarily through my window while I sit in the comfortable indoors, and seeing birds primarily during colder months, I was very unprepared for the heat when I stepped out into the July air to get back into the swing of things last month.
Typically you want to go birdwatching early in the morning, which makes it better. I’ve even gone out in a sweatshirt, nice and comfy to watch the morning routines of robins and sparrows eating breakfast in the park. It isn’t always pleasant though, especially when I’ve watched the bathing birds around lunchtime in Mears park. That means going out at noon and sweating up a storm. Summer days are also when the park is at its busiest. Winters, people typically go out for short walks and needed trips but rarely hang around all day. In July, a trip to the park around lunch means navigating through city tours, crowds watching live music, people sleeping on benches, and the occasional pack of troublemaking teens. I don’t mind strangers and sometimes little conversations and the ability to watch people can make a birding trip far more entertaining. Sometimes though, I just want to be left alone and unbothered.
Another major issue with summer birding is that all the trees still have leaves, which can make identifying perching birds far more difficult. This is most notable with goldfinches, cardinals, and blue jays, who rarely come down to the ground. Last time I was at Mears, I heard chirping from a specific tree and watched it for minutes, scanning for movements that I could zoom in on with my binoculars. Sadly, I never saw anything. I’m convinced there’s a few birds nesting out there, and I’m hoping to spot them eventually before they scatter.
It’s not all bad. In fact, there’s some serious benefits to birding in the warmer seasons: without snow on the ground all the time, benches and stones tend to be dryer which offers more safe places to sit. Even if I do get a little wet, it’s not nearly as much of a problem when it isn’t cold. Summer days are much brighter, with the sun rising early enough that I can go out at 6 right when I wake up and there’s already activity. That can’t really be said for dark winter mornings. I don’t mind the darkness by any means, but it’s just as cozy for the birds as it is for me. And while I love cold, it definitely can provide its own discomfort especially when it’s windy. Even if I’m layered up and cozy on a winter morning, the biggest issue becomes being able to operate my binoculars and leaf through my field guide without freezing my hands. I typically wear mittens or just stuff my hands in my pockets, and that complicates my ability to do these things.
Another major difference as the seasons pass is which birds you actually see. Common backyard birds tend to be year round residents of Minnesota, but there are plenty of other species that rotate in and out. Fall features various birds flying south from Canada, such as gulls and pelicans that are seeking more heat down near the Gulf of Mexico or East Coast. Winter though, you rarely see anything other than the usual customers. Besides more visibility for Dark Eyed Juncos and perhaps House Finches, the diversity in your bird journal goes down quite a bit. This one is tricky. I love seeing new birds, identifying that grackle was really fun and that’s a bird that only comes through for a little while each year. However, as a backyard birder at heart I will always feel more attached to our year round residents anyway. Winter is when they become more clear, when the blues and reds of jays and cardinals become more visible against the white snow, when everyone’s plumage fluffs up to make larger more visible targets in the barren trees. It’s suddenly easier to see the same birds multiple times over, and to watch them for longer. So you see fewer birds, but you see more of them. That’s a trade I’ll usually take. Even when being wowed by grackles, my highlight of that day was the lone chickadee I spotted near the water. It makes me think back to my feeder in the winter, visited daily by round chickadees fluttering back and forth between the squirrel-proof rim and the nearby bush.
So while Summer has its pros and its cons, I’ll always be a winter boy first and foremost. I’m excited for those first few cold fronts to move through, and I hope to try and spot some migratory birds as the snow starts to fall. But even when they’re all gone, and all that’s left is us stoic few who have stayed behind to huddle up in the cold and push through the dark slushy part of the year, I’ll still be grateful for my company. Besides, it's in the gray frigid parks of January and February that a pop of color from a suddenly appearing bird is the most magical.
That does it for us today! Next week we’ll be back with the Big Blue Birdhouse column, where I’ll be talking about some highlights and takeaways from the most recent Audubon magazine.