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The birds are back in town

Up until now, migrants returning this way for the breeding season ahead have been short-distance migrants including a couple sparrow, warbler and woodpecker species.

Early May brings the long-distance travelers, the “neotropicals” with colors to match exotic, sun-dappled forests of the southern hemisphere — where, alas, they spend most of the year. Our time with them is brief.

The neotropics are defined by the limits of the tropical rain forest — an irregular line drawn across Mexico.

The NHBirds listserve reported a ruby-throated hummingbird in Manchester on Saturday along with several sightings of rose-breasted grosbeaks around the state. Both are bona fide neotropical species.

It’s time to clean the hummingbird feeder and check the sugar supply. Mix four parts white table sugar to one part water, boiled a bit and then cooled. There’s no need for red dyes or prepared solutions.

Next to insects, hummingbirds have the highest metabolism and consuming their weight in sugar water and nectar each day keeps it humming. They also eat insects, but aren’t so easily observed doing that.

I’ve been hearing the drumming of a yellow-bellied sapsucker out across the roadside field, uniquely syncopated in tempo.

I suspect that hummingbirds recognize that tempo, too.

Hummingbird males arrive first when flowers and their nectar are in short supply. Often they drink tree sap from fresh holes drilled by sapsuckers. Other birds do, too, along with insects, although it’s risky business for insects. Sapsuckers eat insects attracted to their sap wells.

Over the years, May 5 is the earliest we’ve welcomed hummingbirds to our backyard. The first Baltimore Oriole showed up that same day, too, so we’ll check our orange supply along with our white sugar supply.

Orioles and other birds are in the process of shifting their winter diet over to a breeding-season diet of insects. Offering an orange half at your feeders just might lure an oriole in.

The male’s coloring is a pleasingly perfect match for an orange.

Majority bird at our feeders these days are goldfinches. The males now earn their species name after molting into their breeding plumage. They warble canary-like from the treetops, visible before leaf-out progresses.

Chipping sparrows also are earning their name as the males’ rapid chipping can be heard in most backyards. Their song is compared to a sewing machine, rapid and mechanical. Small sparrows with a rust-colored crown, they’re frequent birdfeeder visitors.

We have a new feeder visitor, a young Tom turkey. Male turkeys lead solitary lives other than their brief period of strutting around and gobbling for the females in early spring.

Most females are on the nest now, incubating eggs, but evidently a Tom’s strutting period isn’t over. Carl reports an old Tom was strutting about with his tail fanned wide early this morning in the company of a female. Carl said she was pecking the ground under the feeders with little evident interest in his display.

The thought of strutting males reminds me of a backyard absence. For three decades we’ve had displaying woodcocks out in the back fields. During the crepuscular hours of dusk and dawn we would listen for the insistent “Peent!” notes that are prelude to liftoff and tuneful flight.

When birds return each spring — phoebes to the barn shed, barn swallows to the hayloft, a red-eyed vireo’s constant song from the roadside maples — there’s comfort in their return, a certain reassurance that the natural world prevails.

When they don’t return, there’s discomfort. Many evenings, as light fades, I go out and listen for the woodcock display, hopeful. Some years, decades ago, there would be two males doing their spring thing, their repeated “Peent” preludes to flight.

I know the barn swallow numbers are way down. The days of 21 twittering swallows are over. There were five last year and no youngsters fledged.

The celebrated “dawn chorus” of late May has half the volume now compared to when I was young. I remember people complaining that the din of birdsong out the window woke them up.

I haven’t heard that complaint in a long time.

As I write, two big birds arrive at the feeders, yellow, black and white, four times the heft of the goldfinches and chipping sparrows that scatter. Evening grosbeaks. Favorites.

Very few birds chirp, but these big guys do. They’re “dude” birds, with a bright yellow eye mask that gives them a cool-dude look, as though wearing the latest designer “shades.”

Off they fly together. Last summer two pairs were regulars at the feeders. I have hopes they’ll become regulars again.

I welcome the distraction from thoughts of barn swallows and woodcocks in decline.

Each spring we welcome the return of birds and birdsong, and our hopes are raised.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Dear Francie I attended your lectures at the library. You were very informative. Will there be more or are they done for the season? If there will be others when and where? We have had Humming Birds at our feeders for two weeks. Thank you again for your informative sessions. Stanford W.Long

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