Taking a break from work to enjoy winged visitors

The delayed arrival of spring means we’re running behind with our outside cleanup, but we skimped on garden labor Sunday and opted to sit and enjoy our garden. Despite a shortage of greenery, our time was well rewarded.

There are a few flowers around, though we have to search for them. Under the bare branches of the trees we found little white bloodroot blossoms, and dogtooth violets bobbed in the breeze. There are buds on the trillium and fern-leaf peonies, too. But the big attraction was in the air. Both migrating birds and summer residents are making their way north now, and we had an opportunity to see them up close.

As we lingered over an al fresco breakfast Sunday, a hummingbird shot across the yard, stopping to sip from the feeder hanging over the second floor window boxes. We’ve had the feeders out since the end of April but didn’t spy the first hummer of the year until Wednesday. I have fuchsias for them, but the nights are still too cold to set them out. The little birds will have to forage among the maple flowers and fruit blossoms until it warms up more.

A female oriole also stopped by. She ignored the orange and grape jelly I had out, and so far none of the other birds have sampled them either. It hurt my feelings, and I’m starting to wonder if I should have just eaten the orange myself. 

The cedar waxwings are back, too, cleaning up the yew berries and the Bradford pears still clinging to the trees. And a little male warbler trilled his heart out from the lilacs. There’s a birdhouse nearby, and we think it’s the same bird that’s nested there the last couple of summers. The usual parade of chickadees, cardinals and sparrows entertained us as well.

The most unusual visitor was also the easiest to spot — a male scarlet tanager. He’s just passing through, headed for a better nesting location. The males are easy to spot since they’re even brighter red than cardinals and have black wings. The females have drabber feathers, olive on the upper body, yellowish underneath. 

The tanagers are slightly smaller than cardinals and related to them. They nest in deciduous forests and do best where there’s 20 or 30 acres of continuous woodland, so our neighborhood is just a stopping point on their migration. They forage high in the trees, flying out to catch insects like bees, wasps, moths, butterflies and grasshoppers. Since those are in short supply now, they’re forced to forage for fruit.

Male scarlet tanagers come north in May and the females follow in a few weeks. They’ll lay a clutch of light blue eggs almost immediately, and the chicks will be able to fly in just three weeks. The adult birds will be ready to head south again by mid-summer.

Habitat fragmentation is a problem for scarlet tanagers. Nests in open areas like our yard are more likely to be invaded by parasitic cowbirds, grackles and crows.     Our yard is a good resting spot for a couple of days, though, with food, water and a place to rest before the birds have to again take wing. It’s wise to let the work pile up when there’s so much to see. The mess will still be here when the birds are once more on the move.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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