May isn’t just for migration anymore!

The month of May has always been a very special 31 days for me. And when I say “always”, I mean as far back as I can remember (in case you are wondering just how far back I am physically able to remember, the answer is 1994). That’s when my appreciation for the month began, and I remember it clearly.

I was living and working at an Environmental Education center in Wisconsin. One May day, I looked out the window of the luxurious staff housing and saw a blackburnian warbler. It was sitting in the shrubs outside the environmental educator crew accommodations. At that point it was by far the coolest window sighting I had ever had in my life, and to this day it still holds legendary status in my mind. I mean, I am still talking about it 30 years later!

When it comes down to brass tacks, the fact was this particular blackburnian warbler hadn’t been there the day before and it wasn’t there the day after either. I’d seen a bunch of warblers that May already, but it wasn’t until the cameo appearance of that particular blackburnian warbler did I realized what I was observing was spring migration.

Hooked on Migration

The thought of pre-breeding migration fills me with “giddipation” (the giddiness that derives from anticipation). With migration you never know who might show up tomorrow, or the day after. These spring birds are migrating hundreds or thousands of miles in hope of breeding. There’s so much potential, so many possibilities, that they just burst into song (too much anthropomorphism here?).

Since that day, and with each passing spring, the month of May became more and more sacred to me. It quickly got to the point where on June 1, I would already start looking forward to May of the following year—I’m not fooling! My post May energy is largely, “that was great, let’s do it again!” I can bare withness it still holds true. Ont he first of this month, I immediately thought, “bring on May 2024!”

Spring migration took all my attention.

Over the years, a correlation developed between the time until May and the level of my internal giddipation. Nothing was able to distract from the daily routine of observing spring migration. Eventually, my friends and even my mother (love you mom!) knew May was not the month to visit me. May offers a four- or five-week window to catch a view of the variety of tweeters making their way north. And no, you may not distract me during this time. May was a very formative month in my development as a nature observer.

While I’m happy to watch any old bird migrate (loons are fun) when I talk of spring migration, I am largely referring to songbird migration, though shorebirds and seabirds and whatever else are equally cool. Spring is songbird time, and if we are talking biases here, there is no denying that North American warblers of the North-east—with all their glorious diversity of niches, appearances, habits, and habitats—have a certain pull on me.

When is a habit a rut?

I am asking this in all seriousness—how many Mays in a row can one focus on bird migration? And solely songbird migration at that?  The answer for me is at least 29 (or 30 depending on who’s counting).

So, does this qualify as being in a nature rut?

Here’s what a rut is by definition…

a habit or pattern of behavior that has become dull and unproductive but is hard to change.

Where a habit is…

a pattern of behavior that has become automatic and is hard to change.

So, the word rut brings a negative connotation with it. Observing bird migration is neither dull nor unproductive. And thus, rut does not appear to be the right word here. Doing something for 29 years certainly qualifies as a habit, or even a hobby.

Hard habit to break or “if it ain’t broke, why break it?”

Migration is easy to get wrapped up in—especially since it’s so timely. May is not the time to say “I’ll check out that singing mourning warbler tomorrow, because there’s a fair chance that singing mourning warbler won’t be there tomorrow!

As a nature observer, the last 29 (or 30) Mays have shown me that as much as I love songbird migration, there’s a lot else going on this time of year. Migration may be the reason I get out of bed, but once I’m outside in the warmer days with more daylight I can’t help but notice other changes taking place. Leaves are suddenly out, early butterflies are flitting around, flowers blooming, black flies flying (but yet biting), and mushrooms starting to tease of things to come. Natural transitions.

While some of these transitions fall into the “love is in the air” category… butterflies looking for mates, flowers looking for pollen (and there was plenty around this spring!), others fall into an offspring category!

Early season mushrooms releasing spores and vernal pool amphibian egg masses hatching for example.

And it is all about the offspring.


So, why did the woodcock sit in the road?

This post officially starts now. And it starts with a woodcock sitting in a dirt road in May. If you think about it, it kinda makes sense.

There is no bigger harbinger of spring for the North Eastern United States (in my mind) than the American Woodcock. They are a celebration of migration, like the songbirds, but for these dudes (dude is a non-gender-specific type word (trust me)) the movement of migration ended way back in March (or maybe April). Early birds that eat their weight in worms—totally confirming that stereotype (early birds don’t always eat worms, but in this case they do!).

“With all that in mind, seeing a woodcock sitting in the road on Clark Island in May didn’t seem crazy at all.”

And it should be noted that seeing one sit in a road is not unheard of. In fact, I’ve had several people report this phenomenon to me, some even documenting with photos and videos. You see, when you are a bird that uses camouflage as your main survival strategy, you (literally) sit tight when there is a perceived threat. Doesn’t matter if it’s in the woods or on a road, even though you might think it would. Prey ain’t always that smart. And woodcock are a prey that preys on worms. They’re riding survival instinct pretty heavily here.

With all that in mind, seeing a woodcock sitting in the road on Clark Island in May didn’t seem crazy at all.

From a distance the woodcock kinda looked like a rock or a piece of wood, so I kept marching with my chainsaw (for trail maintenance, not timberdoodle slicing) and was about 20 feet away when I saw it move and realized it was not a rock (and probably not a piece of wood). Since it undoubtedly saw me approaching (a 360-degree view is handy when you are prey) and it had all kinds of time to move out of the way I figured it was injured or whatever. Certainly, it would limp off into the woods when I got closer.

To my surprise, the woodcock stood up when there was about 15 feet between us. It turned towards me and took to the air, flapping fast and furiously and making a b-line for my head! About 3 feet from my face (I still was not going to the use my chainsaw as a weapon (even in self-defense) she banked to my right and shot into the woody undergrowth maybe 5 feet off the trail. When she landed there was a flurry of activity and chirps from roughly where she touched down. Turns out it was a mother woodcock and her babies! She had been watching guard from the road as the youngsters poked around just off the trail, and then rallied her troopers when I approached. There was nothing wrong with her – She was just being a good mother! (is that a t-shirt or a pin or something?)

And even though I watched her land and saw the action of the little ones, I looked for a moment or two and realized there was no way I was going to find them. They are just that good at camouflage. Besides, I had work to do, and they had growing and survival to be doing. Fun just to know they are out there!

A few days later…

… I was working on trails on Vinalhaven—specifically in the Basin Preserve—and after wrapping up a work session I drove my vehicle to the Basin Bridge to turn around. While on the bridge I happened to look along the shore and spotted a pair of non-adult eagles in a pair of trees close to the road. Using my car as a blind (and admittedly feeling a little lazy and not in the mood to get out) I went to take a snapshot or two of them. Right as I snapped one flew down to the marsh grasses and started pulling/eating something that had washed up (looked to be part of a deer).


Juvenile eagles

“It didn’t take long before the second non-adult eagle flew down into the marsh close to the first eaglette.”

When it landed it went full on spread eagle (by law I have to say that) with its wings providing a great view of its underside. Its torso was pretty much solidly dark, while its wings were heavily mottled and its secondary flight feathers were clearly not fully developed. Overall, it looked a little roughed up. This eagle was new to the scene, as in it was “this year’s model” and probably very new to flying!

It didn’t take long before the second non-adult eagle flew down into the marsh close to the first eaglette. This eagle had a solidly patterned torso as well, but when it spread its wings, it was easy to see that this one was more developed. It’s secondary feathers, while still not being fully grown, were uniform in length and overall, the bird looked less roughed up than the first.

Quick lesson in Eagle sibling dynamics: Bald Eagle eggs hatch asynchronously—one a day over the course of two days (or three if the last egg is lucky enough to hatch). The chick that hatches first tends to be a little bigger, a little stronger, a little more aggressive than the second (or by luck the third) and develops faster than its nestling siblings. The second one to land in the marsh that day looked to be the first hatched, while the first one on the deer was likely a day younger. Ends up there was an adult eagle not too far off watching the whole scene as well. Good parenting from a distance, we like that.

This whole session lasted less than 5 minutes, and I left them.

My commute

It’s well documented (in my head at least) that my favorite months to observe from the Vinalhaven Ferry are November and December. It’s always a good time to observe, but these months in particular offer increased numbers of critters and increased critter diversity when compared to other months. In other words, there are a lot of birds. Conversely, I don’t see so much from the ferry in May as the “critter diversity” mentioned above has largely left for breeding grounds either up north or off shore on seabird nesting islands. So, it goes.

One year-round constant from the ferry, however, is Harbor Seals. Seal numbers can and will fluctuate with season and tides, but there are ledges the ferry route passes that are very reliable for viewing just about any day of the year. And there is something wonderful about how a sleeping six-foot, 250-lb animal can be so entertaining! (Especially if they wake up and lift their head up to look around—so cute! People eat that spraint up (not literally).


Seal and pup

Mid-May is the time to look on those same ledges for Harbor Seal pups, which start out roughly a tenth the weight of a full-grown adult (around 24-lbs for those mathematically lazy). This May held true as pairs of seal mothers and pups—big and little—could be observed on the rocks, sometimes lying next to each other, and sometimes forming the magical “T” when the pup is perpendicular to the female nursing. Nature right in front of you.

Several harbor seal pups were seen from the ferry this season, and still are being seen as we move through June! About two more weeks of them, so keep your eyes peeled. And I usually don’t give animals names, but this May I decided to call all the seal pups “shark bait” staying with my dreamy wish for the ultimate sighting from the ferry, a great white shark! It’s okay to dream!

Quick Special note – Red Crossbills of course

May has been a month of large flocks of Red Crossbills for the last 14 years (at least) on Vinalhaven. Often tallying 15+ individuals, each May, the flocks consist of family groups. Historically, I would only see these flocks on Vinalhaven, even though undoubtedly there were breeding Red Crossbills elsewhere along the coast (and inland!). One personal sighting represents how many in reality again?

“I’ve been crossing paths with these mixed aged Red Crossbill flocks just about anywhere there are spruces.”

This May (2023) I’ve been crossing paths with these mixed aged Red Crossbill flocks just about anywhere there are spruces. Whether that be mainland, on island, or any other kind of land. So just about anywhere I’ve gone I’ve seen these birds fluttering around all chatty like. Been happening all May and that never gets old.

Staff sharing

Recently got to catch up with some co-workers in the flesh, first time in forever, and it’s always fun to see what nature sightings they have to share. Two folks had almost the same exact story of Raccoons making weird sounds in their trees (coincidence?) which was fun. MCHT Steward Tatia Bauer had just been on the Bagaduce River visiting some properties and shared with me a photo or two of a Canada Goose nest that very recently had been vacated. Me being from Jersey focused on the possibility that the nest had been raided (death, death, death…), but Tatia is way smarter than me (and actually saw the nest) and concluded that the eggshells in the nest were from hatchin’ rather than snatchin’. Even though she saw no goslings that day she certainly saw sign o’ babies!

And then she returned a week later and saw geese and goslings – babies, babies, babies.

May babies!

At this point I had realized this Nature Bummin’ post was going to be about wildlife offspring. I then went to Clark Island one late afternoon (close to dusk) to change some signage, when I came across a disturbed Killdeer. Disturbed? Yes, it was calling out and clearly agitated by the presence of two Laughing Gulls nearby, a species that by all accounts is often disturbing and up to no good.

“Freshly hatched Killdeerettes were running around frantically.”

I then noticed a second Killdeer and figured they must have babies nearby! Sure enough, four “all leg”, freshly hatched Killdeerettes were running around frantically. They seemed to understand just how disturbed their parents were. And that was when one of the adult Killdeer made a different noise and the four youngsters b-lined it over. Then, one after another, all four youngsters went under the adult, disappearing under wings and into its torso feathers, protected from the big, bad laughing gulls who were truly just doing their thing. The result was a killdeer with 8-10 legs (depending on the angle you looked from), comical to see except that the only reason I was seeing this was ‘cuz of the frantic panic of the adults. There was fear there, and also the protection supplied by good parents. I like Killdeer even more now.


Eight legged killdeer

I went and did my work and on the way back (five minutes later or so, quick job) the adult was still hovering over the youngsters and the laughing gulls were slowly moving away from the Killdeer. When the coast was clear the killdeerettes, one after another, began to pop out from below the parent and started to run around like maniacs. Boy do those parents have their wings full!

I ended up being out there again a few days later and caught up with the Killdeer family only because they were making such a racket. Sure enough, three of the Killdeerettes were still running around, but this time instead of hiding the little ones under its wing, the adult Killdeer used distracting displays to draw me away from the remaining offspring. It didn’t do the classic broken wing display that Killdeer are famous for but was actively getting my attention with calls and led me to a nearby beach. Once on the sand the adult plopped forcibly to the ground, as if injured, and then started flashing the rufousy section of its upper tail. And the distraction worked. I totally forgot what I was supposed to be doing. Thank you Killdeer and your babies, babies, babies…


Killdeer and babies

If not now, then when?

I led two birdwalks for MCHT this May, and both walks provided glimpses of future generations of some local birds. At Woodward Point we were entertained by the territorial displays and chases of Bobolinks, foreshadowing a tale of youngsters hatching not too far down the line. We ended up finding a Baltimore Oriole nest and watched the female bring in nesting materials as she put the finishing touches on her pendulum nest up so high. It looked to be so close to being completed that eggs could have been laid any day!

At Erickson Fields the bird walk group got great looks at many species, but no better view than of a female black throated-green warbler. She was originally spotted in a little pine about three feet away from my fabulous co-worker Joelle Albury. Before we knew it the bird flew onto the trail and gave us all even better, unobstructed views. And then BAM then she started collecting hair (dog hair presumably) for her nest! Sure made me appreciate the conserved land and all it has to offer humans and non-humans alike. And also, how dogs leave more behind than bagged and unbagged poop (a topic for another day).

More to come

It’s nearing the end of June now. Some have hatched, some have fledged, heck, some have even been weaned at this point! But there are still nests to be built, eggs to be laid, and offspring to be dispersed.

Nature observing can become a great habit or behavior that gets you outside (or to open a window) and look, listen, smell, taste, and/or touch. Being open to whatever’s out there, beyond what got you out of bed and outside. For my May mornings it’s still migration that gets me moving, but oh the cool things I see along the way. And this May has been babies, babies, babies! And that makes me smile.


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