Holiday plans: The Unexpected Adventures of Summer Birds
The summer season is here in the northern hemisphere, and after the efforts of the breeding season in the spring, now the fledglings are learning how to fly, feed themselves and sing the songs of their species, and the adults return to their plans ahead. When the warmth gets too much, birds will seek out hiding places like us, as heat stress can often be more fatal than a cold winter; but summer is not the season for taking it easy.
For resident species, the increased size of families means new territory needs to be found, especially for next year’s breeding season, and for those species who take a few years to reach sexual maturity, there may be some nest-building practice going on. In my village in Europe, second-year white storks have established a handful of potential sites for when their time comes, with piles of teetering sticks atop telephone poles, summer storms testing their architectural skills.
For migratory species, the summer is spent constantly foraging to put on that weight necessary for sustaining them over many hundreds of miles of long flights.
For the majority of species, summer is also the time to get some new clothes, and many will hide away for a few days or weeks as new feathers replace old in a ritual molt.
But despite or indeed because of all of this coming and going, there are plenty of species to see and marvel at, as new family members explore their surroundings or species pass through as their migration begins – Common cuckoos are heading back to their wintering grounds already. Other species like chimney swifts are just beginning their breeding season or others still like barn swallows may still be planning in a third or even fourth brood. Life goes on in the bird-world, so let’s take a look at some stunning and special birds you should still be able to see during the hazy days of summer.
The eponymous brilliance of the males of this medium-sized bunting species looks its absolute best in summer, their deep blue plumage shimmering as the sun beats down. Often found in open habitats such as meadows, fields, and woodland edges, some males will still be engaging in impressive acrobatic displays and singing their exuberant songs throughout August in the hope of more courting and mating before the seasonal changes mark migration for many.
Known for their extraordinary hovering ability and iridescent plumage, ruby-throats are true summer gems. Migrating from Central America, these tiny birds embark on a long journey to reach North America during the warmer months. They visit flowers and feeders all summer long across the central and eastern states of the continent, but if you’re in the west, black-chinned and broad-tailed hummingbirds are the ones to look for.
Male American goldfinches have donned their brightest plumage during the summer season, easily recognized by their brilliant yellow feathers and black cap. These birds can be found in fields, meadows, and gardens, where they feed on seeds and display their undulating, roller-coaster-like dipping flight patterns. Songbirds to the fore, their cheerful singing can be heard into mid and late summer as they forage for thistle and milkweed whose fibrous seeds are produced in June and July. Weaving these plants into their nests, their young have an instant food supply when it’s too hot to head out to the shops.
These smartly dressed migratory birds with forked tails are found all over the world and in summer, they are highly active, voraciously pursuing insects through the skies. Skilled aerial hunters, their speed and agility makes them formidable predators as they catch flies, moths, and mosquitoes, helping us remain bite-free as they go. Highly social birds, you will see small colonies protect each other's nests, communicating by using various calls and chirps. Towards the end of the summer, they will gather in their hundreds on electricity and phone lines and fences as they prepare for their long migratory journey to warmer regions for the winter.
The vibrant orange and black plumage of the Baltimore Oriole is a true summer delight. These songbirds come to North America from their wintering grounds in Central and South America, singing melodious songs and creating intricate woven nests at the tips of tree branches. They cannot resist feeders offering oranges, jelly, or nectar to sweeten the summer days. Familiar to many in the eastern states, if you are westward, look out for the Bullock's oriole, a species so similar that the two were thought to be one until DNA advances showed the world that the northern oriole held family secrets.
It may be too hot for many out there, but this hot air actually gives us an opportunity to see more of certain birds in the summer, too. Rising columns of warm air called thermals provide birds like raptors with an effortless means of soaring and covering great distances, saving energy as they ride the updrafts to impressive altitudes.
The warm long days of summer can be a challenging time for many, but as we try to keep cool, remember these avian beauties and more are out there all day every day, preparing for the next stages of their lives — don’t forget to stock up those feeders, provide fresh water daily, and grab your binoculars and head outdoors when you can to immerse yourself in the enchanting world of summer birds.