Northland Nature: Insect-eating phoebe returns
Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like many in the Northland, I feed birds near the house during the winter. Looking out at the activities of chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers and jays nearly every day adds much to the cold season. About mid-January, this winter dining became more crowded with the addition of redpolls.
As the winter days passed, the birds continued, but during mild days, I noticed fewer. And so, as January became February and March, I planned to stop feeding in April. But when April showers became snow showers, I decided to continue and the birds responded.
Some of the largest numbers of birds that I hosted for the entire season happened as the spring unfolded. Not only did some winter birds return for more snacks, but also many migrants paused to eat on their northing route. Redpolls that maybe are gone by April remained and often filled the feeders. They were joined by the black and white juncos (a type of sparrow) feeding on seeds on the ground.
Scattered among this group, reaching 200 on some days, were a few bright-red purple finches and yellow goldfinches. Other sparrows — song, tree and fox sparrows — appeared as well. The fox sparrows were a delight to watch. Larger than the others, they have a reddish-brown plumage and their feeding habits on the ground are done with ambitious scratching.
Despite the slow-moving season advancing, I have seen other migrants. Bald eagles were on the river ice while geese, swans, mergansers, ducks, pelicans and cormorants were in the open sites. During my walks, I also noted red-winged blackbirds, mourning doves and robins. I observed woodcocks performing their strange dance and flight while ruffed grouse drummed and turkeys gobbled. Spring is happening.
And so, about a week ago, I took a walk to look for plants. I had seen crocus and dandelions bloom, maybe I’d see more in the woods. I went to a site where many ramps (wild leek) are quick to green the forest floor in spring. Maybe, I’ll also see hepatica.
Despite mild conditions and plenty of sunlight on this day, I found neither. As I was getting ready to go, I noticed a bird fly into the woods, alighting on a branch. A closer look revealed that it was about 7 inches and nearly all gray, lighter on the undersides. As it sat, it pumped the tail up and down. I was watching a phoebe.
Phoebes are common in the region, often seen in our yards since they readily accept porches and garages as sites to build nests. They get their name from their two-syllable “fee-be” call, frequently repeated. Phoebes belong to a group of birds known as flycatchers; they feed almost completely on insects. The woods where I saw it have plenty of insects, even in spring.
The day after I saw the phoebe, we received several inches of snow with chilly temperatures. I wondered how it survived. We have another six kinds of flycatchers in the region: least, alder, great crested, olive-sided flycatchers, the wood peewee and kingbird. Only the phoebe is an early migrant.
Returning early in spring has the advantage of a bird claiming an available site to nest; chilly temperatures and snow can make finding insects a bit difficult. But the phoebes will survive. They can and do eat seeds and berries when needed and they may do their bug collecting near open water or along roads. Both of these locations are a bit warmer and attract insects.
Yes, the phoebe was a welcome sight of an early spring insect-eating bird. There will be more.