Thursday, April 24, 2008

Birds Returning From Tropics On The Decline

It was in the golden afternoon that he came. A summer tanager, bright even in the subdued April light.

We have been expecting him, though he doesn't nest at our place anymore. He came to the feeder that is set with cones of peanut butter, halves of oranges, apples and grapefruit. He ate, then bathed in the pool, hopped onto the rocks and fluffed his feathers. He then flew to a giant sweet gum tree in the wooded lot without a single chip or chirp, much less song. We believe he had just winged in from his winter vacation.

For some years he nested in our yard in a water oak. But then one year he came, full of joy and singing only to find his summer housing and eateries had been replaced with people houses and bricked walks, lawns and gardens and paved streets. It's enough to make a tanager cry, and I think he did, for he left us and hasn't been back to nest since.

We have more to concern us though than whether he nests in our yard. Scientific reports show that tanagers, flycathers, orioles and vireos are drastically decreasing in numbers each year when they return to the States from their winter stays in the tropics. Why? Because their winter habitat -- Latin American forests -- are being destroyed at almost 100 acres a minute. These forests serve as the only home for more than half of the world's species of plants and animals, including birds.

When migrating birds arrive in the States each spring and find their nesting habitat destroyed, they go looking for other suitable sites just as our tanager has done for the past few years.

Both male and female are beautiful birds, though of different colors. He wears a solid red suit. The wings and tail are usually tinged with a grayish or brownish color, edged in red. The 7 1/2 inch male stays a rosy red all year. Females have a yellow-orange underpants with a light yellow-green back.

First year males look much like the female. Young males by their first spring are not fully red, but are a strange mixture of red and green patches. They mate in this color. Once on a birding walk along the edges of the Savannah River, we saw such a male tending young in the nest.

Of the 350 species of tanagers in the tropics, only five think it worthwhile to visit the States. Two species, the scarlet and summer, nest in the eastern United States.

The summer tanager is the only breeding tanager in our area. The scarlet migrates through the spring and fall and, of course, has the jet black wings and tail, a mark that easily distinguishes him from the summer.

To distinguish the summer tanager from the cardinal, a year-round resident, and often called the winter redbird, the summer is a smaller, more slender bird with protruding black eyes. And he has no crest. The tanager's bill is longer and more slender than the cardinal's red conical-shaped one.

We still have real estate in our yard for sale. We'll sell it for a song and a little grass and rootlet hangout.

May Is An Outdoors Month

Get ready for May! It is the time for getting out into the marshes and ponds and lake shores. These bodies of water are the most fascinating of the outdoors.

The root-stained, weed-grown, algae-brown waters of the marsh, the cattail-fringed pond, and the lush green necklace of willows and sedges around a blue lake harbor fascinating creatures.

There's just something about a body of water that lures man to it. Is it the timeless sound of the lake waves lapping against a stony shore, or the plant tangled shallows of a pond filled with creatures from insects to alligators, or fresh water ponds formed behind barren dunes on ocean beaches?

May! -- the time of wild strawberries, wild sweet william, wild ginger and wild geraniums, often called cranesbill because of the queer shape of its seed capsules. In the marsh skunk cabbages emerge, beautiful to view from a distance. Its foul odor belies its beauty.

Around swamps and ponds marsh marigolds glitter in the warm sun. The common dandelion is everywhere, its golden flowers enhancing weedy fields and roadsides.

This is the season when indigo buntings sing from lofty, leafless treetops, when meadowlarks sing along fence rows, when orchard orioles are spotted with long green grass lengths for the nest hanging at the tip end of a branch of water oak, and the yellow-breasted chat who you know is around by his grunts, screeches and snorting noises.

Bobolinks, from the pampas of Argentina on their way to northern nesting grounds, sweep over the ripening grain fields with tinkling melodies in their throats.

May is the time to see the striking scarlet tanager, with jet black wings and tail, on his way to more northern nesting grounds. Red-wing black birds throw camouflage aside and blaze crimson epaulets from every bending cattail stalk. Wafting over the gray water is their liquid song, "o-ka-leee, o-ka-leeee." The protective-colored dowdy female is busy nest building.

Look around. There's a common yellow-throat hiding in dense vegetation. You can hear him, "witchity, witchity, witchity," but you don't see him. Lisping among the pines and oaks hung with Spanish moss is a parula. These colorful tiny warblers love swamps, ponds and lake shores where they nest in a swinging swag of Spanish moss. The hooded warbler's haunts are swampy environments . . . low, heavily shaded woods with thick undergrowth. Damp woods around lakes and ponds are favored by this handsome yellow and black feathered beauty.

A great blue heron stalking along the shore of lapping lake water, or standing motionless in the brown water of a pond among reed grass and spatter-dock, is one of the most spectacular visitors of the water habitats.

May! Don't miss the show that's quickly pulling the curtain for the next scene -- summer.