Birds abundant and colorful during cool spring

Northwoods Notebook

A scarlet tanager graces a feeder at Six Mile Lake. (Darrell Hagman photo)

While spring weather-wise might be a disappointment this year, the colder and damp conditions have created one unexpected delight for those who enjoy watching backyard birds: A lot of them, of almost every hue, are coming to the feeders.

A number of readers responded to last week’s column with reports of having scarlet tanagers, a bird they’ve never seen up close, rubbing shoulders with the orioles for a share of grape jelly and oranges.

We joined the club Wednesday when one repeatedly visited the deck, though the poor early morning light didn’t allow me to get a decent photo while still home and it did not return the next morning when I had more time.

Indigo buntings showed up as well, though again the light was too limited for anything but a deep blue spot in the trees.

Wildlife rehabilitator Phyllis Carlson had slightly better success photographing a Cape May warbler at her Quinnesec home. And our neighbor, Darrell Hagman, managed to get an image of a scarlet tanager that does this beautiful bird more justice than mine did.

A Cape May warbler makes an appearance in Quinnesec. (Phyllis Carlson photo)

But along with the wider variety of visiting birds, this spring migration has been noteworthy for the sheer numbers. At our home this past week, a dozen or so orioles at a time would be bickering on the back porch to get their turn at the oranges, hollowing out the halves within a few hours. Whole flocks of indigo buntings turn up foraging under the feeders, like blueberries that can hop.

More than one person has remarked while these species appear almost every year, they’ve never seen this many.

A combination of factors can account for the bonanza of orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, indigo buntings and tanagers, said Ryan Brady, conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

First, spring has been tardy in coming, with few days offering the southern wind flow the birds look to ride in coming north. It’s slowed the push north, putting a lot of them in holding patterns just to the south of this region until about last weekend. Parts of extreme northern Wisconsin still have not seen the influx, Brady said, though that likely will come this weekend.

“The wave of migration kind of hit a wall,” he explained.

Second, the cooler weather means some of the other food sources, such as insects, are in short supply. So the tanagers and warblers more readily turn to what we are willing to provide.

Unfortunately, this equivalent of an avian superbloom won’t last. Most of these colorful neotropicals will want to be in breeding territories by June 1, so while they might hang back for awhile in May, they’ll feel the urge to press on, Brady said.

In fact, the stops they make now could be brief. Ashland, where Brady lives, has seen few of these birds this year and might get skipped altogether if the orioles and tanagers get a good tailwind.

That already might be happening. By Friday morning, the oriole onslaught at our feeders had slowed considerably, the indigo buntings were only a few individuals and the scarlet tanager has disappeared.

So enjoy it while you can — and hope a pair or two sticks around to nest, to keep at least a touch of this colorful show around all summer.


Carlson reported she’s already gotten her first red squirrels for the year, from an unlikely source — a car had been towed because it wouldn’t start, and when they opened up the air filter, they found the nest with four blind and nearly naked babies. All are thriving, Carlson said.

By sheer chance, another call also involved a vehicle — this time a truck — that a chipmunk mother had decided to make into a nursery. When the truck got moved after being parked since last fall, the nestling chipmunks fell out, Carlson said.

In that case, she advised placing the babies in a box with a hole cut in the side in the site where the truck had been; if given the chance, Carlson said, momma chipmunk would tote her tiny offspring to a new nest site. It worked — the chipmunk family now more properly resides in a stump.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 40, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.