BIRD WATCH: Look to the skies for May’s migrants

BROWN-HEADED COWBIRDS IN Port Angeles, Western tanagers in Forks, black-headed grosbeaks in Port Orchard and uncommon sightings of chipping sparrows and Lincoln’s sparrows got the month of May off to a good start.

When the turbulent winds continued buffeting the most dedicated birders and gardeners, they were a reminder that migrants from the south would be arriving.

It’s been at least 30 years since the first week in May enjoyed this much excitement — bird-wise.

Winds were also responsible back then.

My sister and I had joined other members of the local Audubon chapter in a competitive spring bird count. We counted birds on one specific weekend, but a single big day was hoped for.

Saturday’s birding was outstanding. By noon, we had logged 96 different species and anticipated breaking over 100 in the afternoon.

Not to be. Strong winds decided to sweep through the region, and we not only couldn’t hear the birds; we couldn’t see them in the wind-blown trees.

By Sunday, things had quieted down, but we only added two more species to our final total.

Considering the terrific start, it was disappointing to see the great birding slip away on the wind. However, even before it hit us, the migrants were moving our way and they kept moving even as it continued blowing.

That was the first and only time I saw all three species of our wintering loons in spring plumage. They were gathered together at the entrance to Hood Canal, probably resting before moving on.

The thunder, lightning, rain, hail and wind earlier this month brought additional excitement within the ranks of birders looking for May’s expected migrants.

One yard alone was a burst of color when five different species “dropped in.” Among these were the first report of a Wilson’s warbler.

Another reader claimed the first black-headed grosbeak, and the purple martins lit up the sky over my yard. They’ve been around for a few weeks, but now they are calling daily and taking possession of the nesting gourds that were waiting for their arrival.

Also reminiscent of that first great weekend in May so many years ago was a message from a friend asking about the common loon she was seeing in front of her home.

The bird was in spring plumage and looking nothing like the black-and-white winter residents we see.

Perhaps it is a non-breeder and will stay the summer. Or maybe it is only headed for one of the mountain lakes in Western Washington instead of farther north. That would be special.

The first wave of May’s returning birds is a harbinger of things to come. They are like an advance guard or hardy pioneers willing to take the lead.

Others will follow, and the result produces the most colorful birding month of all 12. Warblers, vireos and flycatchers will be mixed in with more black-headed grosbeaks and Western tanagers.

The resident birds (species that stay year-round) will begin introducing this year’s young to the world.

Some will start a second brood even as the newly arrived migrants begin looking for nesting territory.

There is a rumor going around that summer will be more dry than usual. It will make nesting season and nesting success much better than days of pouring rain.

While the sun shines, check to see who is moving about in your yard’s trees and bushes.

Don’t forget to look overhead on those clear and sunny mornings.

Just recently, a Caspian tern sweeping back and forth over the post office was my reward for glancing skyward.

May’s migration action is the best. Watch for it.


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email:

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