If you’re anything like me, you probably spend a fair number of summertime evenings relaxing outside with a good book and your favorite beverage, casually noting the bird activity around you. If feeders or nest boxes are nearby, you’re probably noticing chickadees, hummingbirds, bluebirds, swallows, and other expected birds, depending upon where you live. But what about the many other species that are more easily overlooked, either because they don’t commonly visit feeders or use nest boxes, or because they tend to stay hidden in the treetops? Here are six surprisingly common birds that may be sharing your backyard, park, or other favorite summertime space.
These long, slender cousins of the roadrunner are generally forest-dwelling birds but may also be found in woodland patches within suburban areas. Caterpillars are their preferred food choice; in fact, yellow-billed cuckoos have specialized stomachs that allow them to eat hairy caterpillars no other birds will touch. These birds are more often heard than seen; once you learn to recognize their unique songs, you may be surprised at how frequently you hear them throughout the summer months.
I’m not including this bird only because it has “summer” in its name (although that may have been a contributing factor). Rather, it seems that these colorful, tropical birds receive a lot of press during spring migration, and then go unnoticed during the summer months. North America’s most widespread tanager, these birds can be found from spring to fall throughout much of the Southeast and in parts of the Southwest. You will improve your chances of finding a summer tanager if you learn to recognize both the warbling, robinlike song and the perky-tuck-tuck call unique to this species. In areas farther north, look and listen for scarlet tanagers, and in areas farther west, western tanagers.
Overhead in the summer evening sky, common nighthawks fly with choppy wing beats, gliding and swooping after flying insects. Up close, the nighthawk is perfectly camouflaged for daytime perching on the ground or lengthwise along a tree branch. In flight, the bird appears dark overall with a white slash across each wing. Flying nighthawks utter a sharp, nasal call. In cities, fields, and parks, scan the dawn and dusk sky for their distinctive shape and flight style. In August and September, look for large flocks of migrating nighthawks at dusk.
This bird is well named because nearly every part of it is yellow except for its eyes, bill, and the male’s reddish breast streaks. Yellow warblers are common throughout most of North America during summer, especially in areas with lots of small trees or near water. Listen for their sweet, musical song, often described as sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet. Yellow warblers eat mostly insects; don’t expect them to visit your backyard feeder. But they can be found foraging in a variety of trees, usually at midlevel, making them one of our easiest-to-see warblers.
No wonder the French call this bird non-pareil, meaning “without equal” in the avian world. Adult male painted buntings sport a dazzling mix of red, blue, yellow, and green. Dressed in overall parrot-green, females and young males are equally unique among our North American songbirds. Depending on where you live, catching a glimpse of a painted bunting may require some effort: These birds have limited breeding ranges in the southeastern and south-central United States. If you plan to be in one of these areas during a summer vacation, or if you’re lucky enough to have painted buntings breeding near your home turf, make a point to see one of these birds this summer. You’ll be glad you did.
It may surprise you to learn that the red-eyed vireo is among the most abundant songbird species in North America. This bird’s greenish coloration helps it blend into the foliage, so in summer it is best located by song, a series of two- or three-note phrases given once every two seconds or so: here I am, up here, in this tree, over here. Habitat-wise, these birds prefer wooded areas, which often include parks and larger yards. Other vireos encountered in neighborhoods include yellow-throated vireo and white-eyed vireo. Again, each is best located by song.