They are sights to see

Each spring I document the first appearance of specific migrants. Although it can be variable from one location to the next and from one year to the next, there is a general schedule that species tend to abide by. So I thought I would share with you a few of my FOY (first of the year) sightings for comparison.

The first rose-breasted grosbeak arrived on May 2. I was headed out the front door early that morning, and there it was on the fly-through feeder. He saw me and didn’t seem to startle. Did hunger from migration drive this normally shy bird to ignore me? I continued to watch; I could hear him shelling the seeds as the chaff sifted from out of the corner of his massive beak and drifted away in the gentle morning breeze.

Grosbeaks have odd nesting habits: males sit on the eggs, help with the young, and sing while incubating. Females also break rules because they are one of the few female song birds to perform territorial song. The scientific literature also supports their uniqueness with accounts of “closed bill singing” between the sexes. It is a song so soft that it can only be heard with special acoustic equipment, but it is beautiful beyond all superlatives.

Elusive and shy by nature, rose-breasted grosbeaks don’t like to reveal themselves, but you can attract them, as I do, with black oil sunflower seeds. Some birders use a blend of black oil sunflower seeds with bits of fruit, and they claim it works better. It is also a great alternative for those who may not want to deal with handling grape jelly, which is another way of enticing these birds into view. Incidentally, catbirds will feed on grape jelly, too.

My first catbird appeared on May 8, the same day I discovered blue-gray gnatcatchers flitting about the brambles behind my garden. The blue-gray gnatcatcher is a tiny bird that is seldom seen and yet common. I suppose some birders may find them visiting their suet blocks but generally speaking this is a bird that is seen only by chance.

Blue-gray gnatcatchers are frequently confused with our other small migrants, the wood warblers. Beginning in March, with the very first of the spring birds, pine warblers turn up within the towering white pines throughout the region. Yellow-rump warblers, many of whom wintered along the mid-Atlantic states, appear next in April, but it isn’t until the second week of May that we see dozens of them. I had my first American redstart, black-throated blue, and Canada warblers by May 16.

Two days later, I experienced my first great-crested flycatcher. It was the earliest record I had for this species. Typically, I don’t see them until the last week of May. Great-crested flycatchers are the only member of the flycatcher family that nest in a secondary tree cavity. All the other flycatchers build an open cup nest either in a tree, shrub or beneath a rocky outcrop or human made structure.

Keeping record of when species return is a great way to increase your awareness of birds and their comings and goings — and, inadvertently, the entire rhythm of the planet. Spring migration is an awesome thing to experience.

Robert Tougias is a Colchester birding author. You can email him questions at



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