There’s nothing like a splash of color to get you out of the winter doldrums, and one of the most glorious displays of spring color begins about this time each year when birds migrate north to their summer homes.
“The eastern phoebe is the first to arrive,” said Park Authority naturalist Tony Bulmer. “They’ll show up in February and are among the first signs that spring is coming. It gives you hope that warmer weather is on the way.”
Shortly after that, the songbirds, with their brightly colored plumage of gold, red and blue herald their arrival for spring.
“The warblers are the prettiest and the largest group,” Bulmer said. There’s the prothonotary warbler, “It looks like a canary,” and the oven bird, “Its nest looks like a little oven on the ground,” and the blackburnian warbler, “It’s black and orange and heads way up north.” Bulmer said.
“Last spring, we started to see the ground-nesting birds like the Kentucky warbler and the oven bird return to Ellanor C. Lawrence Park after a 15-year absence, which is pretty exciting.” Bulmer says ground-nesting warblers need to have enough cover to feel safe, and there were so many deer in the park’s woodland at one time, they ate everything growing on the ground. Deer management programs helped cull the herd, the forest floor’s health was restored and the warblers returned home.
Little birdy stopped in to say hi to a patrol officer this morning. Is this a sign Spring's just around the corner? pic.twitter.com/zCuvbkKkMA
— Fairfax Co. Police (@fairfaxpolice) February 19, 2016
Bulmer’s experience with birding dates back to his childhood. His father, Walter Bulmer, is a renowned ornithologist, and together father and son would look to the night sky for signs of spring.
“Most birds migrate at night by the stars and rest during the day in trees, and that’s why we’re able to see them,” Bulmer said. “When I was growing up, my father and I would stand out on the deck on a full-moon night and count the birds as they fly by.” By day, they would look to the trees for glimpses of winged wonders resting on their journey north. “One of the neatest birds to see that is hard to find is the scarlet tanager. They nest here and are very secretive and feed on the tops of trees. When the leaves come out, you hear them more than you see them.”
Bulmer says birding is a great activity for families, and it’s something you can do in your own backyard. If you’re a beginner, Bulmer suggests signing up for a Fairfax County park program to learn birding basics. “Start with bird feeder birds,” he advised. “Various types of seed attract different birds; suet attracts woodpeckers.”
Bulmer also suggests investing in a good bird book to help with identification and a decent pair of waterproof binoculars.
“A lot of birds migrate at dawn and dusk, and binoculars help you see well if there’s not much light,” he said.
To make the most of the season, be sure to start looking with the first signs of spring. Otherwise you’ll miss some of the prettiest birds that are just passing through.