(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 22, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
From east to west small birds descend southward for the cooler months. Some make it all the way to South America, some to Mexico, and some say Texas is just right by staying for the entire winter! This has been a real joy in my most recent years of bird watching. There are four of these I will attempt to spotlight in separate articles. I have chosen certain small and very wild birds because they represent a cross section of small insect eating birds, and if you live in the US, you are bound to see at least one of these every year. The chances increase highly when some part of the garden is geared toward the lower end of the food chain. Here I have accomplished this by planting larval host plants in my back yard. All summer the benefits abound with various resident birds and native butterflies. Yet when fall and winter come there are a few new characters here in the wings that bear more distinction as you will see.
They are mainly small non-gregarious birds, which is all the more intriguing for the fortitude and navigational skill they must have to survive flying back and forth solo over so many miles. To hear of them is a delight, to read about them is fascinating! To see them in my own back yard, priceless! This came as a surprise after many years of raising butterflies in conjunction with bird watching. By enlarging their territory it has become a reality that I look forward to every winter. When most folks are putting up their gardening tools and bundling up plants, so am I. However all the while looking over my shoulder for the return of these little garden sweethearts.
Late last summer (September 2006), I caught a glimpse of a little yellow bird in one of the front yard trees. Managing to snap a blurry picture (left), I was able to make a positive identification of him as Wilson's Warbler. He was diligently on his way to Central America, and had stopped to find food and water. Even the short visit had a very endearing effect on my memory. Possibly even capturing a bit of the excitement Alexander Wilson must have had upon seeing one of them for the first time.
Which brings us to September 3 of this year, looking out over the small garden in back resting from the day's work. Out of my periphery I was struck by the movement of something bright and yellow in the back corner Privet shrub. I sat very still as the small yellow bird spiraled up to a tree closer to me. Right over my shoulder in fact. Here it was, a whole year later and another Wilson's!! Definitely a different one, it was a young male this time. I was able to take a series of about 10 photographs, during which he flit off the branch to capture a damselfly landing right back on the same branch. Looking for more, he was not so much worried about me there snapping the pictures.
This warbler can be seen all throughout the contiguous states during spring and fall migration times. They cover inhabitable land in Canada from east to west during the summer while breeding, and spend our winter in Central America. I'm happy to add that there is no concern of them becoming extinct at this time, plus these little guys produce up to 6 eggs in a clutch. So your chances of seeing one where you live and garden are getting better all the time. Although they are more abundant in the western states. Just keep a good lookout at their migratory times at the zone you live in. You will likely learn when that time is by a significant sign of summer's, or winter's, last leg. Knowing when the last leg of those 2 seasons is up to you in your own zone. They must set out on their journey in plenty of time to cross the whole USA well before winter begins going south, and likewise way before summer begins going north.
The secret to drawing them, if there be one, lies in the lower organisms of the garden. Planting larval host plants has been a major part of that here, and many native plants are among those. Birds can see the trails of their best habitats from the air and from far away. They will visit gardens using large trees and shrubbery for exclamation landmarks. They know that when they get to where those plants are they will find a non-toxic edible smorgasbord of protein. A few species of the smaller birds will eat meal worms from a feeder, however most of the wilder small birds enjoy a good fight before eating. This is actually quite critical to the wild birds for knowing their catch is safe to eat by how lively it is. This is also because they fancy themselves as big wild game hunters.
It is an incredible joy to have evolved this small back yard over time, and see the free creatures where they live. Their coming here is a higher compliment to my garden than all the Jones's accolades. It is difficult to explain. Other than pictures, words will have to do. The main thing was this; In creating a place in the garden for them, even in this small place, a peaceful and safe habitat has grown into existence. Once you are marked on their migration map, they do not forget you. Better yet, keep it wild enough there in your own garden, and see for yourself!
Links of interest:
Bird Watching Forum (right here on Dave's Garden Web)
Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America