Little Local Joys: The Migrating Birds

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Jim Pivarnik for ELi

An American robin on a walnut tree in East Lansing.

Carolyn Miller’s knowledge of birds took flight when she was 10 years old.

During family camping trips to Hartwick Pines State Park, Miller would walk into the woods to sit, look and listen. She heard songs, caws, and screeches. She saw flashes of colors and flits of feathers. Soon she could identify birds big and small, and formed an understanding of avian behaviors within the nature she adored.

Today, Miller’s work life mirrors those quiet days at Hartwick Pines. As the plant recorder and botanical technologist for the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden, Miller traverses the park-like setting of the MSU campus, tracking and cataloging trees and shrubs. Although COVID-19 has shifted most human activity off-site, bird and plant life abounds, touched by seasonal rains, breezes or warm rays of sun.

“It’s so quiet right now,” Miller said of campus and the surrounding town. “We’re not driving all over the place, or running around and talking. We’re just stepping back and listening, and hearing the sounds of spring.”

Early April typically signals the start of spring migrations for a variety of birds species. Miller said those migrations come in waves, with some ground feeders coming first, followed by birds whose tastes skew toward flying insects.

“I recently saw a thrush,” she said. “They’re closely related to robins, who are here now. They like to pick bugs off the ground. You’ll see them scratching away leaf litter.”

Miller said East Lansing residents can anticipate a second wave of migratory birds in mid- to late-April as the cold snap passes. Those might include the warblers, blue-gray gnat catchers and vireos that typically pass through when more insects buzzing about.

Novice or seasoned birdwatchers don’t have to wait for warm weather to enjoy birds that take up residence year-round in East Lansing yards. Birds, too, are more visible as they perch in trees, with most oaks and maples still bare of spring leaves. Common sightings include black-capped chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, blue jays, gold finches, cardinals, and sparrows, as well as red-tailed or Cooper’s hawks.

Miller said a number of easy-to-follow, simple guides are available for bird identification, including Birds of Michigan, a field guide by Stan Tekelia. The Red Cedar Chapter of Wild Ones—a non-profit environmental education and advocacy organization—also provides tips and recommendations for native plants that can help attract birds and butterflies.

“If you look up, there’s just a lot to see,” she said. “I am so happy when I have a pair of binoculars around my neck, outside and listening. Birds are just so peaceful.”

ELi’s “Little Local Joys” series is sharing small things that bring us joy and hope during the coronavirus outbreak. Do you have a little local story of joy or a tale of hope you would like to share? Click here for details. We would love to hear from you!

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