May is a fabulous month for bird watching in the Northeast U.S. We’re in the midst of a bustling spring migration, with many of my favorite birds returning. Some birds, like rose-breasted grosbeaks, are just passing through. Others, like the wintering birds that stick around during the cold months, are singing again, building nests, laying eggs and — much to my immense delight — visiting my feeders in droves.
I’ve been watching birds for about two years. At first it was simply a way to slow down. It gave me some solace after my daughter died, a balm to my broken heart. Back then, I could only name a few birds like the mourning dove pictured above. Mourning doves are one of the most abundant species of birds in North America, with an estimated population of 350 million.
The rose-breasted grosbeak is a type of finch with a large, triangular-shaped bill. Breeding males are striking both perched and in flight. Their white bellies are punctuated by a large red patch that’s shaped like a heart. This is fitting, because grosbeaks, being the hopeless romantics that they are, mate for life.
In my part of New York, Grosbeaks are seasonal, appearing in mid-to-late spring and disappearing again in late summer when they leave to migrate to Central and South America. I enjoy them tremendously when I see them at my feeders.
Red-winged blackbirds are large songbirds that pal around with such troublemakers as grackles, blue jays and starlings. The females are tan with heavy streaks of dark brown on their chests and wings. They have a yellowish tinge to them that is more noticeable in some lighting than others. The males are solid black with bright red and yellow patches on their shoulders, as shown in my first bird essay.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are my favorite birds. So much so, that I dedicated an entire photo essay to them. I’m addicted to watching and photographing all birds, but especially hummingbirds. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the only species of hummingbird that we see in my region of New York (the Mid-Hudson Valley). They arrive around the first week of May and depart by the end of September.
Males have a ruby red patch on their throat that often looks black (as seen in this photo), while females are slightly larger and have white throats with light beige markings. My goal this year is to try and get some (clear) photos of hummingbirds in flight.
For all its ubiquity as the bird of spring, the American Robin is not easy to photograph. That’s because Robins tend to hop around the grass and flit through tree branches and don’t visit feeders (at least, they don’t visit my feeders). Robins eat worms which is why you often see them hopping on your lawn. They also eat fruit.
Mallards are large ducks that can weigh up to four pounds. The males are quite colorful, with iridescent blue-green heads and bodies featuring blocks of brown, white, black and a blue “speculum” patch on the wings (not shown in the above photo).
Female mallards a drab, streaky brown overall except for the blue speculum patch on their wings (seen in the above photo, poking out at the bottom of her wing). Mallards are year-round residents in New York and are a common sight in the surrounding lakes, rivers and ponds in my area.
The gray catbird gets its name from its distinctive “meow”-like call, though it has an absolutely dazzling repertoire of sounds that they’ve cobbled together by imitating other birds. Catbirds are related to mockingbirds and are great mimickers. They’re migratory birds and are now just returning to New York for the breeding season (this is the first catbird I’ve seen so far this year!)
I’ll end with a common and adorable little bird who frequently visits my feeders — the downy woodpecker. Woodpeckers of all stripes love suet, and this guy is no exception. He’s perched on the pole that’s holding my suet feeder, waiting his turn. Male downy woodpeckers are black and white with a bright red patch on the back of their head (females are identical except they lack the red patch). They’re a year round resident in New York and in addition to suet, I often see them helping themselves to seed at my other feeders.