By Jeff Rugg- Have you seen your first robin yet? How about your first grackle or red-winged blackbird? Spring is slowly arriving, as seen in the slow accumulation of signs for the nature observer. These early-arriving migratory birds will soon be followed by many other neotropical migrants.
Some robins stayed in the northern states all winter, but most of them have been moving up from south of the border for the past several weeks. Some birds slowly migrate north across the continent, taking a couple of months from when the first ones arrive until the last ones move in.
Some species migrate quickly and cover the thousands of miles in just a few weeks. Usually, the males migrate first to establish territories, and the females come up last when the territorial battles are over.
The next couple of months are the peak time to see many migrating birds in their prime coloration, especially warblers. These sparrow-sized birds come in every color of the rainbow and actively seek insects from the ground all the way to the treetops.
The best time to look for these birds is when the shrubs and small trees in your area start to leaf out and flower. If you can get out on the local trails, that is the time to do it.
Migratory birds work hard to get the benefit of almost year-round summer. After raising their young (or being born) in the spring and summer, they leave North America as the cool weather of fall approaches. They enjoy a full summer of tropical weather in South America while we have winter. In other words, they don’t go south for the winter; they go south for more summer. But our summer is coming back, and so are they.
Migration is an incredible journey that we people have a hard time understanding, and the birds do it with a precision that is even more incredible. For several years, I helped with a bird-banding project in the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois. Mist nets were placed in the same locations every season.
Each bird caught was given an aluminum band with a specific number on it. Most birds we released were never seen again. Several years in a row, a few nonmigratory birds were caught several times in the spring and fall.
One species in particular that stands out in my mind is the northern waterthrush.
They are smaller than a robin but eat insects they find by walking around on the ground the way robins do. They live in wet forested areas. They nest across Canada and may nest as far south as Wisconsin. They spend our winters in the rain forests of South America. On their round-trip journey of thousands of miles, some fly through Illinois.
Season after season for years, we caught the exact same bird flying between the same pair of trees in southern Illinois. How they are created to do this is amazing to me. And not only are they that precise to get to the same place; they migrate at night.
So, when robins come to nest on top of your porch light this spring, they very well may be the same ones that did it last year.