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The Backyard Birds Newsletter

Killdeer Road by Diane Cooledge Porter
Here Today
By Diane Cooledge Porter | BBN Contributor

They live on a planet with two summers. They don't like trees. They sing jazz. They carry on like tiny penguins doing kabuki.

In early May, the males show up overnight. I go out on the grassy field one morning, and they're there, singing as they fly circles around me. I can see each one looking down, checking me out. Their song is a musical jumble, like bells and bubbles and laughter mixed in a blender, yet with each note distinct and precise. As if each bird had many birds inside, all singing at once. Some say they got their name, bobolink, for their song.

I'm more used to birds singing from the trees. I'm not so used to birds singing while they're circling me like an airborne posse until I'm dizzy from watching them. They orbit me for a couple of minutes and then peel away. Some fly away low and direct, as if to patrol the entire field from one end to the other. Some beat their wings stiffly and fly so slowly I think they're going to stall like a little plane whose engine has stopped.

I'm sure the purpose of these slow flights is pure theater, to show the great white patches on their wings and backs, in sharp contrast to the black below. Even when they land, they hold their wings clear of the rump, the better to display its whiteness.

Within a few days the females show up, dressed for modesty in streaks and browns, like sparrows, so different from the males that it would be hard to guess they're the same species. Now the pairs chase, two by two, twisting through the air in close pursuit. And soon the females disappear. They're down in the grass, working with nests and eggs.

The Backyard Birds Newsletter (Digital Edition)

Late Summer 2012

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The Backyard Birds Newsletter: Late Summer 2012 Feature: Species Profile
Yellow Warbler
By Dr. David Bird
Probably the most widely distributed of all warbler species throughout the North American continent, the yellow warbler is also an easy bird to describe to any bird watcher looking for one: it is warbler-sized and yellow. Well, maybe it has some chestnut streaking on the breast, but it's unmistakably yellow overall.

Although its habitat in North America is mainly wet, deciduous thickets, the yellow warbler also may be found right in your backyard. Both spring and fall migrants use wooded residential areas as stopover habitat, and recent studies in British Columbia have found them nesting in human-influenced habitats such as cultivated farmland, orchards, roadsides, and suburban parks.

Like most warbler species, yellow warblers feed upon various insects and arthropods, they are not averse to adding some wild fruits to their diet. They are more likely to be seen foraging on the smaller limbs of both deciduous and coniferous trees, especially at the tips and on dead branches. They are seldom seen feeding on the ground, preferring to remain somewhere between 20 and 30 feet up in the trees.
The Backyard Birds Newsletter: Late Summer 2012 Feature: Bird's Behavior
What's Bugging Insectivores?
By Dr. David Bird
What two things do barn swallows, chimney swifts, whip-poor-wills, common nighthawks, loggerhead shrikes, and American kestrels all have in common? If you're thinking "a diet largely consisting of insects" and "population decline," go to the head of the class. All of these birds' populations are decreasing to the point where they are either on Canada's endangered species list or will be in the not-too-distant future.

About 30 years ago, I commonly used to see chimney swifts and common nighthawks flying in the skies over my campus in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, Quebec. Barn swallows are not seen in anywhere near the numbers they used to be. I could regularly count 20 pairs of American kestrels in the farmlands just outside the city of Montreal; I am lucky to find five pairs today. Nowadays, folks often lament to me that they no longer hear the calls of the whip-poor-will in the forests near their cottages. As for loggerhead shrikes, they have actually been extirpated in Quebec and are now down to about 20 pairs in all of eastern Canada. These scenarios repeat themselves in various parts of the United States.
The Backyard Birds Newsletter: Late Summer 2012 Feature: Why the Backyard?
Birding the Dog Days
By Ed Kanze
"Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer," sang Nat King Cole in a voice as sweet and smooth as molasses. Summer days can be sticky as molasses, too, especially when it's August and you're swaddled in long sleeves and pants to keep out the bugs. Sunscreen is buttered on thick. A pair of 10-power binoculars hang like lead around your neck, and your brain finds more appeal in a cold drink and a cool swim than in sorting out plumages of migrants and soon-to-be migrants that can't be bothered to sing.

What's a bird watcher to do?

When the calendar delivers lemons, we might as well make lemonade. This variation on an old saying cuts two ways in my home woods in upstate New York's Adirondack Mountains. August can be a time of dizzying pendulum swings: we can have days so hot you can hardly keep clothes on, and nights so cold that tomato vines give up the ghost in the garden.