From around the state I hear reports of the first migratory birds: sandhill cranes, hooded mergansers, and red-winged blackbirds. The numbers and diversity of birds-on-the-move will steadily increase through April and May, as longer days and warmer temperatures renew the availability of critical food sources. Stepping outside at night during the peak of migration, you can hear the sounds of their passing—distant contact calls, rustling wings, and a subtle wind that seems to carry spring behind it.
May 15. That's the date on my 2009 phenology calendar marking the arrival of ruby-throated hummingbirds in our yard. The timing is fairly consistent from year to year, with a little variation accounted for by late-arriving winter storms that hold the migrants down south a little longer. Once in a while I'm fortunate to see a male hummer in April, three or even five weeks ahead of schedule. These precocious fellows ride the heels of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, a variety of migratory woodpecker that makes the rounds of our yard in the earliest days of spring. Sapsuckers drill wells in the bark of maple trees to access their welling sap. Small insects throng to these puddles of sticky sweetness, and hummingbirds gobble up this free source of body-warming protein to get them through the lingering chilly nights. There is always the risk of an unexpected storm or freeze. The male hummingbirds that survive the trip have a distinct advantage: early arrival in their summer range and access to a wider choice of breeding territories.
Once the females appear, I often hear chittering calls among the trees. But it takes sharp eyes and patience to see the birds firsthand. Adult ruby-throated hummingbirds seek insect prey to feed their miniscule but voracious young, making only rushed visits to the nectar feeder for their own refreshment. I stop to look for them when I first come downstairs in those still-dim minutes before sunrise, or when the evening shadows are long over the feeders.
A female ruby-throated hummingbird ducks in to drink from the feeder, but drinks without perching--it's a fast-food operation during the nesting season.
As the fledglings become independent in late summer, everything changes. Throughout the day males, females, and juveniles zip
Rain or shine, subzero or sweltering, around 2:00 p.m. each weekday some internal alarm prompts me from my chair toward the kitchen. Although this is a short migration, it involves a radical shift in habitat. My office is tucked on the north side of the house and flanked by an Entish pin oak tree. Those with an aversion to low light might find the room too solemn, but I enjoy its cool, shady attitude. It feels as though I have my own little bower among the branches of the house. I work here for hours at a stretch, cocooned in a silence that is conducive to concentration but not oppressive. There’s a palpable shift in my awareness when I enter the kitchen, which is flooded with light throughout the day and in all seasons. Wide windows on its east and west walls, and exposure from the south through an adjoining mudroom, make the kitchen open and lively. This is the real heart of our home. Even a quick infusion of its light, color, and space gives me just the dose of energy I need to remain focused through the afternoon. A cup of tea doesn’t hurt, either.
Teatime is not a fancy affair. I don’t prepare food, and never even sit down. But there is a ritual associated with this break. I take down two mugs from the cabinet. One is chosen randomly, though it can’t be too large. The other is my favorite mug, made of thick, cream-colored ceramic with a handle that looks like a twisted twig. Across its surface are painted two of the birds that commonly appear in our yard: the Baltimore oriole and the blue jay. The style of painting looks somehow old-fashioned, like it belongs in a dusty field guide you might find tucked away in your grandparents’ library. I choose a bag of good black tea to go in the first mug. Something fruity or spicy goes in mine—but no caffeine allowed. Finally I fill the burnished metal teakettle and place it on the burner. Now begins my favorite part of the routine. Until the kettle sings I have a few free moments, with nothing more important to do than watch.
is a professional writer, naturalist, and natural science educator who writes from her home in Minnesota—when she's not too distracted by the view out the window.