Sunday, September 6, 2020


Every birder we know remembers his or her first experience with the scope and sheer size of migration. We can read that between three and four billion birds fly over the U.S. every spring and summer, but it takes a particular incident to bring that statistic to life. For many, it’s the huge flocks of Snow Geese in Addison VT. For others, it’s hawk watches on Mt. Philo or Putney Mountain or – even more amazing – someplace like Veracruz where tens of thousands of raptors pass overhead in just a few days. And for others, it’s a “fallout”, when hungry and exhausted birds hit a wall of wind or a storm and tumble out of the skies en masse, landing on ship railings, lawns, trees, houses and cars.

This fall, our own backyard has given us a hint of migration wonders. On August 31, we strolled outdoors for our morning “hello” to the gardens, and we immediately realized that this was no ordinary day. There was bird noise everywhere! 

We ran inside to get binoculars and a camera, and we spent the next two hours so excited that we didn’t even complain too much about the dreaded “warbler neck” from staring up into the trees. 

The most exciting – and initially baffling – bird was a male Scarlet Tanager, the first we’ve ever seen in our yard. 

He appeared to be molting and was a colorful mishmash of red, black, yellow and orange instead of a tanager's usual rich red body and jet black sides. 

(Except for the photos of this bird, all the others in this post were taken earlier. We were too stunned to get a lot of photos!) 

There were nine species of warblers, including the Common Yellowthroats that nested and fledged young in the wet part of the yard. 

These little cuties have visited us every morning since early May. They often hang out around the vegetable garden, apparently finding bugs.

We also had Chestnut-sided Warblers nest either on our property or right next door, and one or two showed up in the August 31 excitement.

One lone Black-and-white Warbler imitated a nuthatch as it looked for insects on tree trunks.
(photo by Tyler Pockett)

A small flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers gleaned in the old plum trees. (photo by Sheri Larsen)

The golden heads of Black-throated Green Warblers glowed as they hunted for bugs.

The name "Black-throated Green" really doesn't do justice to these handsome birds!

                             photo by Jane Ogilvie

A Tennessee Warbler was an unexpected thrill! 

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds whizzed from one patch of jewelweed to another. (This was the last day we saw the male. He must have departed for Central America the very next morning.)

That morning, we identified twenty-seven species of birds. Some (like Mourning Doves, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, chickadees and titmice) were year-round residents. Most, though, were southward-bound migrants. 

Migratory birds need a lot of food! Many birds that nested and raised young here in Vermont spend our winters in South or Central America. Some fly out over the ocean, nonstop, for an entire day or more. They spend weeks fattening up before starting out on their journeys, and they love both sugary fruits and protein-rich caterpillars.

The birds in our yard were active in two tall wild cherry trees, two old apple trees (apple trees are great for yummy caterpillars) and plum trees, and a big oak. (One oak can support over 300 species of caterpillars!)

Another migratory rush came through the yard on September 3, when we watched at least three Rose-breasted Grosbeaks chowing down on bugs and the few remaining nanny berries. Catbirds feasted on wild grapes, the Common Yellowthroat patrolled the veggie garden, and "our" Eastern Phoebe perched on dead branches and darted out into the yard after flying insects.

Back in the spring, we wrote about having to stay at home for birding because of the pandemic. We have found unexpected joy in backyard birding!

Enjoy fall migrating birds as well as our year-round resident birds,

Monday, August 17, 2020

Only A Few More Weeks to Enjoy the Hummers!

We love the little guys! Starting in late April, when we put up nectar feeders, we eagerly watch for that flash of neon red, and listen for those tell-tale buzzing and chipping noises.


Male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds come back to Vermont when the amount of daylight tells them to, even if there’s still snow on the ground. Returning birds go to the exact spot where there were feeders last year. 

If foolish humans put up the feeder pole in a different location, the bird will hover in that spot for a minute or two before looking around for another option.


The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes these tiny birds as “precision flyers”. They zip around at top speed, like giant bees, and stop on a dime. They can hang motionless in the air and then abruptly move up or down or sideways or even backwards. Their wings, which are short for their bodies, beat 60-80 times a second. 

But they do stop moving sometimes. Just like other birds, they take time every day to preen their feathers.

Ahhh! All clean and beautiful again!

The first female arrives a week or more after the male. 

This year we were both lucky enough to see the male in acrobatic courtship flight. He first makes huge U-shaped loops over and over and then, if she perches, he faces her and rapidly flies back and forth in front of her.

The female makes a nest that's not much bigger than a walnut half, using thistle or dandelion fluff held together with strands from spider webs. She puts tiny bits of lichen or moss outside, which acts as camouflage. When she’s done with her lovely little construction, she lays 1-3 white eggs, each weighing less than one-fiftieth of an ounce. Her mate plays no part in caring for the eggs or the young, which fledge after two to three weeks.

Young Ruby-throated Hummingbirds look like their mothers but with shorter bills. 

The males are fierce defenders of their favorite flowers or nectar feeders, chasing away even their own mates and their own offspring. They choose a perch that gives them a good view of their territory and they sit, always alert, their bills waving from side to side ...

and always alert!

Hummingbirds of all kinds feed from many different  flowers as well as sugar water put out for them by humans. Feeders with clear sides let us see the tiny birds’ very long tongues as they flick in and out, lapping the nectar. (Part of the tongue is visible in this photo.)

If Ruby-throated Hummingbirds get to Vermont before any flowers any out, they’ll follow sapsuckers and drink at their sap “wells”. They also take tiny insects for protein. Hummingbirds save energy during cold nights by lowering their body temperature and heart rates.

Now, in late August, the males are fattening up for migration. They're also molting, trading worn feathers for new.

There may be some adult males coming through Vermont from farther north. There are two ruby-throats showing in this picture, a rare sight for our backyard!

Adult males usually leave northern Vermont in late August, although one lingered until September 5 several years back. September 20 was the latest date for females or juveniles. They’ve all got a long trip ahead of them, all the way to the Gulf Coast of the United States or even Central America. Many of “our” Ruby-throated Hummingbirds fly directly across the Gulf of Mexico, 500 miles nonstop. That seems so implausible that people used to think they migrated by riding on Canada Geese!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird are the only breeding hummingbird in the eastern U.S., but another species can show up late in the migration season. Rufous Hummingbirds nest in the Pacific Northwest up into Alaska. For unknown reasons, every now and then one takes a ridiculously long route to the Yucatan, heading first east-south-east and then south and then west again. These little beauties have shown up in New England as late as December, and they really appreciate finding a filled nectar feeder!  

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

When is a Hummingbird not a bird?

When is a Hummingbird not a bird? When it is a Hummingbird Clearwing moth.

As part of my Jericho project page on iNatuarlist, I am observing life forms, particularly insects, in our one-acre yard in Jericho, Vermont. Below are some images of clearwings. 

We are planting many shrubs (particularly caterpillar host plants), fruit, flowering plants, and trees, that are native to Vermont, and that attract insects, pollinators, birds, and other wildlife. I am curious to see if our insect and bird species observations increase as these plants get established over the next few years. The buttonbush, grey dogwood, serviceberry, and many others are getting established and looking good.

Email me if you wish to receive a (free) spreadsheet list of all of the Plants Native to Vermont and the birds, pollinators, (caterpillars on host plants) and others that some of them attract. 

Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) viewed in Jericho, Vermont

Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) viewed in Jericho, Vermont

View more insects and other life forms viewed in Jericho, Vermont on my iNaturalist Jericho project  page @

Also, I have a few more insect photos on a previous blog posting -

Monday, June 22, 2020

Red-headed Wonder in Essex!!

When a bird shows up that has been seen in Chittenden County only a handful of times, it's cause for excitement. When the bird is wearing brilliant red, white and deepest black, it's even better! 

A Red-headed Woodpecker has been hanging around a residential area in Essex Junction, first seen by the homeowners and now ogled by many local birders. Clem Nilan (who gave us an amazing photo of a very rare White Pelican last August) shared these pictures of the beautiful bird.

Red-headed Woodpeckers used to be very common in much of the U.S. but their population has been declining by about 2% a year since the 1960s. Possible reasons include the loss of most of the country's chestnut trees in the early twentieth century and the significant reduction in the numbers of beech trees (for food) and big dead trees (for nesting). The species is now considered threatened or endangered. 

About a third of their diet consists of insects, which they dig out of trees like other woodpeckers but also catch on the wing like flycatchers. In addition, they eat nuts, seeds, corn, berries and other fruits. They often save bits of food such as bugs and nuts by pushing them into small crevices in trees or even under house shingles, and then come back and retrieve the tidbits during the winter.

Male and female Red-headed Woodpeckers look alike. During courtship, they sometimes play “hide and seek” with each other around stumps or power poles. Once mated, the pair may stay together for several years.

Thanks to Clem for these wonderful photos! (Information is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Spring Rainbow of Jericho, VT. Backyard Birds

Photos of recent bird visitors to our backyard along with a poem to celebrate their arrival and in some cases, departure. 

Spring Rainbow
Bernie Paquette

From bleak 

black and white

chickadees brave the cold winter months.

Grey skies of early spring

bring gray catbirds 

whose tops remain black

lest the sky darkens with May ice. 

Goldfinches hedge their bets

some stubbornly or perhaps wisely

hold onto dark subdued olive green

while others bask in lemon yellow

sunning themselves to gold.

They too hold a black cap
black and white wings

like a funeral armband

in remembrance of winter’s cold embrace.

The bluebird’s entry reflects the true

turning point

breast of white like the last holdouts of snow

receding into orangish-brown of last year's foliage

erupting in bright blue of berries yet to come.

Perhaps second to announce
spring must come, it truly must

red-wing blackbirds 
with flashy epaulets of red and yellow

followed shortly thereafter by streaked females

blushing in burnt orange at the males' advances.

A few white-crowned sparrows and white-throated sparrows

passing through

tree sparrows swap out with chipping sparrows and song sparrows

trailing the fox sparrow departure,

as spring overlaps winter.

Grackles bear purple heads 

spring is colder than it looks.

Finally blue skies set the backdrop

spring locks in place 
with the black and white of chickadees


the black and orange

of Baltimore orioles 

shocking the senses against a still nearly barren brown landscape.

As a precursor to hot summer days

grosbeaks shatter all doubt

with rose-red bibs and flesh-colored bills.

Spirited rainbows of spring

join the enduring black and white 

for a blend of temperatures, colors, transitions.

A diversity of seasons

marked by temperature, migration, and color.

From bleak 

black and white,

chickadees change their minds*

as orioles seek oranges 

before trees swap drab black and grey
for every green imaginable. 


This female Baltimore Oriole came to us on May 17 about a week after the males showed up.