(5.21.17) Migrants

Every spring my bird-watching neighbor across the street starts waiting for the rose-breasted grosbeaks to return to her feeders for a day or two during their long, long migration, and every spring they turn up, right on time, to feast on the safflower seeds she puts out especially for them. I keep a safflower feeder up at all times myself—primarily to discourage visits from European starlings, who dislike safflower seeds—and I start looking for the rose-breasted grosbeaks every spring, too.  I am always disappointed.

Until this year. This year I had grosbeaks all day long, every day, for two solid weeks. At first they were skittish, heading into the trees as soon as I stepped out the door, but then they got to know me and decided I was all right. I could walk around the deck, watering plants, sweeping, and they would peer at me from the back side of the feeder for a few moments before going back to their meal. I take my laptop to the deck and work outdoors most days in springtime, and all day long I watched them lining up for a turn, it seemed, waiting on the nearest branches until a perch opened up at the feeder.

Middle Tennessee is just a way station for the grosbeaks, who spend winter deep in the rain forests of Central and South America but who mate and rear their young primarily in the northernmost reaches of the U.S. and Canada. Appalachia appeals to them, too, and my neighbor is sure that our guests are headed to North Georgia. Any why not? Her guess seems as good as any.

But guessing is getting harder to do as the migratory journey of songbirds is complicated by the effects of climate change. According to a new report, “A growing shift in the onset of spring has left nine of 48 species of songbirds studied unable to reach their northern breeding grounds at the calendar marks critical for producing the next generation of fledglings.” For thousands and thousands of years, the path of the migrating songbird has been synced to the growing season of plants that now bloom and fade out of their time-honored seasons. What will the birds eat if the berries they rely on have long since faded by the time they arrive? Could this study explain why the grosbeaks—one of the species most affected by changing climate patterns—came to my feeder for the first time in this year of the too-early spring? Why they came to my feeder and stayed and stayed and stayed?

Wherever they have been, and wherever they are going, it’s the birds who are only passing through our region that excite the most interest from the serious birders I know. I am not myself a serious birder—I am only a person who spends a good deal of time looking out an office window—but I feel the same thrill when I notice a new face at the feeder, a stranger at the birdbath. I treasure these glimpses of the exotic, this sense of having traveled to distant lands, of hearing, however briefly, their strange, foreign songs.

One evening a few years ago I looked out my office window, and there in the growing twilight was a scarlet tanager taking a drink. I had never seen one in this yard before, and I have not seen one since. But I think often of that beautiful bird, of the few seconds I could stand at my window and watch it taking a cool drink of water in the gloaming. To me it looked like the blood-red, hollow-boned embodiment of grace.