When do Birds Fly South?

Swapping Birds

All summer we’ve watched and listened to wren couples who built nests and raised young in our yard.  An Indigo Bunting welcomed each summer morning with his song and serenaded the evening until dark.  Early this spring, we marveled at the brilliantly colored orioles and grosbeaks who visited. During warm months, hummingbirds flitted up and down and all around outside our windows.

When a long-absent bird suddenly makes its springtime appearance in full breeding color, it’s exciting and easy to spot. We greet spring’s migrants after their long journey north with a hearty, “Welcome Home!” and some seed.

With fall now in the air, our vivacious summer bird friends are drifting away, pushed southward by vigorous north winds. Departure is different from arrival. When they appear in spring, birds are in their glorious mating colors and sing with gusto. They’ve been absent for months until one morning we look out the window – and there they are!  It’s magical.

Indigo Buntings and Wrens Leave…

Arrivals are easy to mark. No so departures. By fall many birds have molted into their more subtle nonbreeding colors and just seem to evaporate. No singing marks their departure and figuring out just when they leave is challenging. More often we just say, “Gee, I haven’t heard the indigo buntings for a few days. I bet they’ve gone.”

…and Juncos Arrive

We wish we could help migrants on their departure evening by saying, “Have a safe trip and pleasant winter. See you next spring!” Since we don’t know exactly when they’ll be winging south, they depart without our good wishes. The parting is sad, but we know we’ll soon look out the window and almost miraculously spot the fall’s first juncos nosing around on the ground looking for a few seeds to enjoy for breakfast.

Orioles and grosbeaks drift south starting in late summer and our bunting was gone by August 20. Hummingbirds and wrens disappear by late September. Juncos usually appear from northern breeding grounds in October and stick around until April. Then they seem to vanish overnight. But, that’s just before spring’s colorful songsters arrive

What Synanthropes Live Near You?

What is a Synanthrope?

People are surrounded by synanthropes. It’s a long and obscure word that is descriptive of hundreds of wild plants and animals.

A synanthropic species is one that benefits from and lives close to people. Essentially, if people disappeared these plants and animals would struggle to survive and, perhaps, disappear themselves. They need us! Other species are semi-synanthropic and live close to people or benefit from human action but might live in lower numbers in wild places.

At Winding Pathways, we strive to restore species native to our area of Iowa.  We’ve had success, but we’re still surrounded by synanthropes that require our presence.  Fortunately, we don’t have Norway rats or rock pigeons but these and other species are common in the biggest cities worldwide. They are wildly successful in the grittiest urban areas.

Animals:

House mouse and Norway rat
House fly
House Sparrow, American Robin, House Finch, House Wren, Rock Pigeon, Canada Goose, and Ringneck Pheasant
Raccoon, Opossum, Woodchuck

Plants:

Dandelion, Purslane, Lambs quarters, Kentucky bluegrass, And many common weeds.

We encourage everyone to look around and notice plants and animals in their homes and yards and learn whether they’d be there without human presence. Expand our list!  If they would disappear should the yard be a virgin wilderness and people were absent, then they are synanthropes.

Spring Haikus

Reminiscing on some Haikus from the past. These seemed a good way to honor spring and welcome summer.

March
Quivering seed pods
Last year’s fruit, This year’s promise
Red buds produce life.

April
April ‘to Open’
Birds beckon, flowers unfold
Hope, re-birth, re-new.

May
Dampness Awakens.
Slow green shoots appear and grow.
Spring bursts in splendor.

How goes butterfly
So gaily in morning dew.
Quiet. Elusive.

Surf booms, with great roar.
Coquinas ride waves to rest
On white, clean beaches.

Pelicans I
Spring aerial art.
Wheeling, gliding all in sync
Pelicans migrate.

Pelicans II
Spring aerial art
Banks, wheel. Dive. Glide in sync
Pelicans migrate.

Mountain tall, distant
Shelters small creatures that live
In harmony there.

Laughter tumbles free,
From souls to the earth.
Children, living gifts.

Understand
Begin where we are
Understanding nuances
Plain talk ease nerves.

Best Birding in the Yard

At Winding Pathways, we venture into our yard nearly every day, even if it’s raining, windy,

House Finch

Some birds homestead at Winding Pathways.

or frigid out. Of all the times, early May is our favorite to linger outdoors. Why? It’s the best birding.

Very late April and the first couple of weeks of May boast normally glorious weather, blooming flowers and birds. Lots of birds, including those we can only enjoy for a fleeting week or two.

Here’s how we group the birds that we enjoy in our yard. Odds are the same or similar species follow this pattern in backyards with good habitat across much of the continent.

THE HOMEBODIES

Some birds don’t migrate. They brave the cold and grace winter feeders. In summer, they often raise broods of babies on the edge of the yard. These include titmice, chickadees, cardinals, nuthatches, house sparrows, and many woodpeckers.

THE NORTHERNER

Juncos are almost always under our feeders all winter gleaning seeds. To a Junco Iowa is the balmy south with a “warm” winter. Around mid-April they head north to nest in the boreal forests of Canada and Minnesota.  We won’t see them again until around Halloween.

THE LOCALS

Many people consider the first sighting of a Robin to be a sign of spring. They assume the birds just arrived from the south. Robins, and closely related bluebirds, aren’t ambitious migrants. As the weather cools each fall, they abandon suburbia and move to nearby brushy areas for the winter. Winter Robins are common in orchards, the edges of farm fields, and wherever they can find dry and frozen fruit. These much-admired birds do a dietary switcheroo each year. Robins are famed worm eaters, and during warm months, they mostly eat insects and other invertebrates. In winter, they’re mostly vegetarians and dine on frozen berries. In years when fruit is scarce they’ll move south until they find suitable foraging.

THE HOMESTEADERS

Many birds are true migrants that winter far to the south but return north to raise a family. Among these true migrants are house wrens, rose breasted grosbeaks, orioles and indigo buntings. The homesteaders that nest at Winding Pathways have reached their northernmost destination but many of the same species simply rest and eat for a day or two before flying further north to nest. They are mere passersby.

THE AMBITIOUS MIGRANTS

Many birds are serious migrants that winter in South or Central America or the southern US and wing north to Canada and even Alaska to nest, only stopping to rest and eat for a day or two on their long journey. Many are warblers, although dozens of other bird species only use Winding Pathways as their “quick stop” on the way north. We can only enjoy the procession for a week or two in early May as the migrants stock up and then catch the next southerly winds to propel them to their nesting areas.

BIRDING AT ITS BEST

What’s remarkable about early May is the sheer diversity of birds that visit yards. It’s the best time to bring a cup of coffee and pair of binoculars outside.  Sit quietly and look and listen to discover the amazing array of birds not possible observe in other seasons.  A good bird book helps with identification but we often use the resources of the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology to help us identify and learn about birds. Their website at includes outstanding information that helps us determine species by both sight and sound and we frequently use their MERLIN phone app when we’re hiking or camping.