A look ahead, a look back at the birds of May

By Jeanne Church

Even though I’ve been taking pictures of birds every May for the last several years, I am hard pressed to remember which specific birds I might encounter during this warm, sunny month before the official start of summer. To refresh my memory, I decided to look through all of the bird pictures I had taken during the month of May in years past.

It was a pleasant, albeit daunting, task.

Most of the birds I was looking at were totally unfamiliar to me just a few short years ago; birds like the American redstarts, blue-winged warblers, veeries, and common yellowthroats! Those birds, I came to find out, love insects and prefer woodlands, wetlands, prairies and forests to my backyard smorgasbord of seeds and suet.

Of all the spring birds I have found, the one that gave me the greatest surprise appeared three years ago on a sunny afternoon in May while I was walking through the nearby Asylum Lake Preserve. High up in a tree was a shape I didn’t recognize. As soon as I zoomed in with my camera, I could see that it was a brown and white bird with a long tail and a slightly curved bill; bigger than a robin but smaller than a crow. I had no idea what it was and started taking pictures as fast as I could hoping it wouldn’t fly away before I got a few decent shots. That strange looking bird turned out to be a black-billed cuckoo! I didn’t even know we had cuckoos in Michigan!

The Cornell Lab website, All About Birds, described the black-billed cuckoo as a “slender, long-tailed bird that is sluggish and secretive and often perches motionless in trees and shrubs.” No wonder I had never seen one before! Two months later, at the Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary in Bellevue, though, I spotted another one – only this time it was a yellow-billed cuckoo!

Another bird I had never noticed before taking up photography was the yellow warbler. It’s much smaller than a cuckoo, but easier to find. The males are bright yellow with yellow-green backs and chestnut-colored streaks on their breasts. The females look very similar to the males but lack the chestnut streaks. You’ll find yellow warblers near the tops of tall shrubs or small trees flitting about quickly from one branch to another looking for caterpillars and other insects.

“North America has more than 50 species of warblers, but few combine brilliant color and easy viewing quite like the yellow warbler. In summer, the buttery yellow males sing their sweet whistled song from willows, wet thickets, and roadsides across almost all of North America.” https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Yellow_Warbler/overview

I was looking through so many pictures of May birds that it was difficult to decide which ones to include in this collection and which ones to leave out. After much deliberation, I settled on the yellow-rumped warbler as my final bird – mostly because of its amusing nickname, the “Butter Butt”!

The adult male yellow-rumped warbler is relatively easy to identify, not because of the buttery-colored patch on his rump for which it is known, but because of its distinctive black mask and yellow flank. The females, on the other hand, are a little trickier to identify. They have the bright yellow patch on their flank, and the somewhat-hard-to-see yellow patch on their hind quarters, but do not sport the distinctive black mask.

While you may be hard-pressed to find the well-hidden and secretive cuckoos in Michigan, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility. The yellow warblers and the yellow-rumped warblers, on the other hand, are a more likely possibility – but they hop about quickly and may remain elusive as well. With a good pair of binoculars and a great deal of patience, though, you just might find one in the upcoming months!

Happy birding!

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