EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.
Spring! Planet earth tilts, the sun shifts and the days grow longer. Buds swell and unfurl into bright green, miniature leaves. Best of all, as the nights get warmer, more and more migratory birds land in darkness to populate our forests and fields, our meadows and marshes. The pre-dawn chorus around the house grows in volume as different species wend their way north. The post-dawn chorus too is a riot of sound. May, the glorious month of May, has finally arrived after our cold, brutal winter!
A hazy pink and orange sunrise gives way to brilliant blue skies. It's time for my morning walk, the first without gloves and scarf. First, a quick cup of coffee as I try to identify any new songs joining in the melodious morning avian opera. The resident birds -- robins, chickadees, titmice, nutha-
tches, goldfinches and a full complement of woodpeckers -- now more vocal with the urges of spring, are drowned out by the invasion of the southerners.
The feeder is awash with very yellow goldfinches. This active troop of 30 or so has become aggressively vocal, but do slip away when the larger and flashier rose-breasted grosbeaks take over the trays and tubes. At one point five males grace the feeder while in the tree behind it, three females wait and just watch the macho male antics.
For the first time in ages, an unimaginably blue indigo (some say indi-glow) bunting is on the ground picking in and among the sunflower seeds in the sharp, early morning light.
Insistent phoebes call and call from chimney, barn top or limb. Tree swallows chitter as they swoop back and forth across the field, landing now and again on a bluebird house. Chipping sparrows replace the whistle of the white-throats and the trill of the juncos with their own version of a bell-like song.
I stand on the porch and listen for the warblers: first and foremost to arrive and loudly and constantly announce his presence ("teacher, teacher, teacher") is the ovenbird, that guardian of the forest floor. Next, that hapless chestnut-sided warbler chimes in ("I lost my damned compass!"), then comes a yellowthroat, the bandit of the bush, ("wicheta, wicheta, wicheta") and lastly, the red stripe-y yellow ("sweet, sweet, sweeter than sweet").
A pair of orioles flit from one sugar maple to another lilting, "Givemethekeys, givemethekeys please." From across the road, the newly arrived yellow-throated vireo breaks into verse ("three-eight, three-eight"). Shiny black grackles and redwings hop over the downed knotweed near our pond looking for a suitable place to build a nest.
I walk along the dirt road where coltsfoot is starting to perk up in the morning heat. Near the large pond, rows of equisetum poke through the soil at the edge of the road in such even lines they could have been planted. The pond is still this morning, though a pair of unseen geese honk at one another. Parulas and black-and-white warblers are calling and there are so few leaves unfurled I can actually find them. Every 20 feet or so, I hear another ovenbird, then another.
I take the main path into the Hand Hollow Conservation Area and head toward the pond. Nothing but ovenbirds for the first few minutes. Finally a black-throated green calls: "Zooo, zee zozo, zeet." Green spikes are poking through the brown leaves covering the forest floor. Every so often there's a glimpse of color: purple, yellow and white violets. Regal, blood red trillium are blooming not far from the pale yellow, blossoming trout lily.
As I come around a cove, two ducks paddle away. Green-winged teal! not unusual for this general area, but definitely a first for me in Hand Hollow. The piercing call of an osprey distracts me, and when I turn back the teal are hidden in the reeds. Further along concentric circles emanate across the water. A beaver swims over to glare at me, dives under the water, comes up a little closer, and then, crack!, slaps his tail showing his displeasure with my presence.
I follow the stream, downhill and cross the little wooden bridge where the water is babbling so loudly I cannot hear any birds. The path goes over another hill before it descends and skirts another tributary stream. Many more ovenbirds compete with yellows and yellowthroats. A single Louisiana waterthrush shouts over and over again, "Push, push, push, patooti."
The lower area of Hand Hollow is a series of connected, very full beaver ponds. The last pond through, the one closest to the road, is almost completely dry. This variation in habitat attracts many different species. Least flycatchers and kingbirds fly out from their preferred limbs, snag an insect and then go back to said limb to enjoy the crunchy snack.
A squadron of tree swallows allows the bluebird pair to nest in the farthest box. A pair of green herons highsteps over hummocks before disappearing into the protective tangle of the honeysuckle bushes. For the first time in five years, a pair of great blue herons is nesting. Momma and poppa can barely fit in the nest together, but, like teenagers in a Volkswagen, they try.
The pond closest to the road is really not much more than a mud flat and three solitary sandpipers work different portions of the exposed muddy bottom. A kingfisher sits in the blasted tree watching them, but has to fly to another pond if he wants to catch any fish. I make my way back up the hill taking a right hand turn at the little bridge which leads to the other side of the pond. For the second day in a row, the red-shouldered hawk circles above me shrieking. The nest must be quite nearby.
The woods now are resounding with three or four scarlet tanagers. If the ovenbirds are the guardians of the forest floor, the tanagers are the champions of the canopy! Ah, the glorious, merry month of May!
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.