The day that spring came

The changing of the seasons is marked by the return of favorite birds

SOUTH NEWFANE — At my home in South Newfane, spring came on April 8.

There are many different ways by which people determine that spring has arrived. For some it is the first daffodil that blooms. Others hurry spring's arrival with the first blooming crocus. Ice-out in the West River might be the arrival of spring, or ice-out on the Retreat meadows. Fishermen opt for the opening of trout season; skiers the closing of a favorite ski area.

Birders, of course, look for the arrival of certain birds. “The Red-winged Blackbird,” says one birder, “always shows up in my yard on March 8. That is the arrival of spring.”

On April 13, while monitoring the passage of waterfowl, I crossed paths with two other birders. We swapped sightings. We had all seen our first Palm Warbler. A yellow little bird with a rusty cap, it sings a rapid chipping-buzzing from low branches and thickets while bobbing its tail ceaselessly. Someone said, “When the warblers start coming, you know it's spring.”

That is very true. The arrival and passage of the two-dozen-plus species of warblers is the anticipated event for Eastern bird watchers. They are the beauties, the sought-afters, the wonders of spring. They are like the dessert menu in a fine restaurant: rich, tempting delicacies that cannot be passed over.

But the first warbler is not the day spring comes, not even when the Palm Warbler drops to a low branch so that I can see, without the aid of binoculars, his fresh yellow plumage perched on a drab branch against a gray tree trunk. Not even when he wags his long tail in avian greeting.

For me, the day spring comes is the day when I am standing in my yard and hear for the first time in many months the simple name-saying of a small, plain, gray and white bird - “fee-bee fee-bee fee-bee.”

This year, I heard “phoe-be phoe-be” as I went out for the mail mid-morning on April 8. Hurrying inside, I called out, “I just heard the phoebe!” From somewhere came the answering echo, “Wonderful! It's spring!” The exchange rolled through the usually calm rooms of our home, causing one of our cats to raise her head and perhaps wonder about the fuss.

The Eastern Phoebe arrives in my neighborhood sometime between the very last days of March and the middle of April. The ground squishes under the step. The retreating snow waters the snow drops. The winter rye is greening up and the garlic is emerging. The river behind our home runs high and fast, its sparkling water crystal green with minerals carried along by the snow melt.

On a branch above the river, the gray-backed, white-breasted Eastern Phoebe wags his tail with each spoken “phoe-be,” his “song” as unimaginative as his plumage. But maybe that's not fair. He does vary his song. Sometimes he puts a slight emphasis on the first syllable, sometimes on the second: “Phoe-be phoe-Be Phoe-be phoe-Be.”

The phoebe is a flycatcher. It forages from its perch, flying out to catch insects in midair, sometimes dropping to the ground to grab a bite, or hovering briefly to grab something out of the foliage. Wintering in southern North America, it may turn to a diet of berries, but in the north during the summer it goes for the protein contained in wasps, bees, beetles, flies, bugs, grasshoppers, spiders, ticks, millipedes, and such like.

It is usually found near stream sides or woodland edges near water. Its native nest sites were probably stream banks or rock outcrops where there was some support below and cover above. Now it often nests under bridges, on a beam in a barn, or under a house eave. Some small support, such as a slightly protruding window lintel or trim, provides just enough support for the female to build her mud base. Moss and leaves are mixed into the mud, and then the open cup is lined with fine grass and animal hair.

The phoebe nests early. Forbush reports that the “first brood often requires six or seven weeks, or even more, from the beginning of the nest until the young have flown; but when the same nest is used for the second brood, a month is ample time, as this brood is reared in warm weather, when food is plentiful and storms usually are few.

“Both parent birds take part in incubation and in feeding the young, and within one or two days after the first brood leaves the nest, the female begins another or starts repairs on the old nest, while the male cares for the first brood.”

For such a plain, drab bird, our Eastern Phoebe is a much loved bird. It goes about its business in and around our homes, our garages, and our barns, quite unperturbed, perpetually repeating its name and wagging its tail. The simple song is one of the most easily recognizable bird song; its tail bobbing a distinctive field mark among all of its drab flycatcher cousins.

My regard for this small, gentle bird goes back 25 years to when I was just beginning to watch birds: I was building a small house in western Pennsylvania. While I was nailing down sub-flooring and nailing up paneling, a pair entered the basement garage and built a mud nest on a beam. As I came and went with tools and materials, they came and went with food for their young. They were such friendly neighbors, busy with raising their family, but always having the time to add a friendly greeting - “phoe-be” - and never too busy that they couldn't wave tail feathers from a tree branch perch.

Years later, the first “phoe-be” of the year banishes the last of winter's bone chill - promises roadside chats with neighbors and woodland walks with friends. The first “phoe-be” intimates the garden's bountiful produce, and the splashy color of spring and summer blossoms. The first “phoe-be” is Persephone stirring, life returning: the coming of spring! This year spring came on April 8.

Good birding!

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