A fruit-tree filled with songbirds

Posted June 10, 2011, at 2:05 p.m.

It was one of those moments that birders covet but can never really expect to have — at least not 100 percent.  Birds being what they are — quick and highly mobile, and dependent upon conditions such as wind, cloud cover and temperature, which in turn affects many of their food sources — make a sure thing unlikely.  A birder can plan a trip down to the smallest of details, but that is no guarantee the expected birds will actually show themselves when a birder is there to see them.

Knowledge of birds and their preferred habitats and habits increases the odds of success.  Sometimes, though, even just a slight change in conditions, a break in the weather — or even the occurrence of weather — can produce unexpected gifts.

A break in the long stretch of cool, rainy weather last month produced a most beautiful bounty.  It was a rare day of sunshine, optimal conditions for bird migration had occurred the night before and the flowering trees were filled with songbirds.

It began with the song of a northern parula warbler.  The wiry, ascending spiral of song abruptly cut off at the top and ended on a short down note, sounding like a sneeze.  I got my glasses on the bird and was thrilled by great views as it foraged for small insects among the apple tree blossoms.

This was a male I was viewing; his yellow throat and upper chest made the bluish-chestnut wash across his chest stand out sharply. The effect was heightened by his blue-gray head and back and white eye ring, and his wings sported two white wing bars.  Movement elsewhere in the tree revealed a female parula; she had the same general pattern markings of the male, but without the bluish-red chest band. She was also drabber overall.

The song of a Nashville warbler drifted out from among the blossoms — seebit seebit seebit seebit-chichichichi. I was able to get a good look at this bird as well. The gray head with its white eye ring and dark (but subtle) orange patch on the crown were clear identification marks, as was the yellow underbody and drab-olive back and wings.

In between snatches of song, both warblers gleaned insects from the bases and insides of the tree’s leaves and blossoms.  From the looks of things, it appeared the hunting was good.

Not to be left out, both a male and female Baltimore oriole made an appearance. At one point, I had the both of them, as well as a male Nashville warbler, in the same field of view through my binoculars.  It was intriguing to see how each bird used different parts of the tree for its foraging needs.  The orioles zeroed in on the small blossoms, perhaps gleaning insects from the petals, but more often than not I noticed them actually picking the flowers apart to get at the nectar.

Nectar is an oriole’s favorite food source during spring migration and upon arrival on its breeding territory, and it will often avail itself of hummingbird feeders.  Many people install specially-made nectar feeders that have wider ports for orioles, or put out orange halves, peaches, pears, suet or grape jelly for them, as these foods provide much-needed energy for birds whose reserves are depleted by their journeys.

I was thrilled to have my National Geographic moment of a fruit tree filled with songbirds, but yet another treat made itself known.  The familiar twittering of chimney swifts drew my attention to these aerial masters as they executed endless maneuvers in their pursuit of flying insects. These birds spend so much time on the wing it seems they are part of the sky itself.

As quickly as the show had begun, it was over — just five minutes later the apple tree was empty of songbirds, and the swifts were off patrolling a more distant section of sky.  I felt incredibly lucky to have been in just the right place at just the right time.

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