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Welcome neotropical birds to our climes

Right now, thousands of song birds are headed our way from the tropics. They are navigating their course through the night skies and will soon fill the spring mornings with song. Although they will be with us throughout the summer, it is now that they are more readily seen. Many of these neotropical birds arrive hungry from their journey and are thus easily enticed to your feeders.

This is especially true for the rose-breasted grosbeak, which arrives in May after a long and dangerous migration across the 600-mile Gulf of Mexico. This beautiful burgundy breasted neotropical has flashy black and white wings, and a strong liking for black-oil sunflower seeds. There is a brief window of time when these birds visit feeders. It begins upon their arrival and stops when they start breeding in late May.

You will want to offer the seeds in a pole-mounted hopper or fly-through feeder. They are much more likely to settle down on these feeders than a swinging tube feeder. These types of feeders make it possible to offer their other favorite food –grape jelly.

The gray catbird, another neotropical migrant, will quickly find and devour grape jelly, too. Fruit is a big part of the gray catbird’s diet. They will visit a feeder supplied with jelly, suet bits, and even raisins. I love having the catbirds around my house.

Several years back, my daughter and I used her play fort as an observation blind to watch a nesting pair of catbirds. We successfully watched the pair incubate, feed, and guide the fledglings into the surrounding woodlot. All the while we were observing the ground loving catbirds, a Baltimore oriole sang from high up in the canopy.

With a slim chance of finding the orioles’ nest, we were happy to watch the male’s acrobatics along the ends of branches. Orioles, well known for their time spent in the high tree top canopy, construct their famous hanging nests so solidly that they can last for many months. Thus, you can find their nests in the winter when the foliage has dropped. Like the grosbeaks, orioles come to our offerings for just a short period in May. They feed on sliced oranges and the sugar in oriole nectar feeders.

It seems the most anticipated of all neotropical migrating birds is the ruby-throated hummingbird. I find these little birds fascinating. Imagine, this tiny bird, weighing no more than the nickel in your pocket, flying nonstop across the Gulf and then to your feeder. If weather gets too cold here in early May, and it often does, the hummingbird simply puts itself into a low metabolic state known as noctivation: it's similar to hibernation.

You can help hummingbirds by placing your sugar solution filled hummingbird feeders out now. Typically, hummingbirds start returning in early May. Hummingbirds, unlike rose-breasted grosbeaks and orioles, will continue to visit your feeder through-out the summer.

For me, birding isn’t always a matter of ticking off a species list — I find birding through careful observation rewarding. These three species, grosbeaks, orioles, and hummingbirds are not rare: I’ve seen them countless times before, but seeing them each day is the essence of knowing what it is I see. Now is the time to observe and get to know them more closely, because soon they are going to be busy feeding their fledglings and lost in the constellation of newly emerging leaves.

Robert Tougias is a Colchester-based birder. His new book is now available at booksellers and online. You can ask him questions at


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