There is a predictable rhythm to the presence of birds on the home property. Their arrival and departure closely follows the seasonal ebb and flow which is not at all surprising in the general scheme of things. Birds of our region, like all avian species, have opportunistically evolved to thrive under certain climate driven circumstances, each species finding a particular seasonal niche where it can prosper.
In winter, the yard is populated by “the usual suspects;” what we might call feeder birds. These include hairy and downy woodpeckers, red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, mourning doves, crows, blue jays, goldfinches and so on. When food supplies are scarce up north, there also might be an irruption of finch species such as common redpolls and pine siskins
As the season starts to change in late March, so also the mix of birds begins to alter. By the end of March the first-red-winged black bird has made an appearance, followed soon thereafter in early April by the first eastern phoebes and song sparrows. Almost like clockwork I can count on hearing the Baltimore oriole's lilting call by the first week of May, and soon thereafter the woods begin to fill with the varied songs of arriving warblers.
In early June insectivores are back in strength with squadrons of chattering chimney swifts overhead and the great-crested flycatcher's distinctive raspy call emanating from the edge of the woods.
Then on a late-July morning, I will awake and realize the woods are quieter, and I get a sinking realization that the summer birds are departing. At the same time, species that disappeared during nesting season – downy woodpeckers, tufted titmice – are beginning to re-appear, a sure sign fall is on its way. Soon migrating white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos are passing through the yard, and large skeins of Canada geese are honking nosily as they fly over heading south. Soon it will be winter, and the whole orderly progression will begin anew.
There is comfort in that predictable movement through the avian year, but it is the unexpected visitor that can surprise and delight. Just the other day, I was heading down the drive and was startled by the sight of three hooded mergansers paddling across the fire pond. Seeing hooded mergansers on the fire pond was not a yard first, but it has occurred so rarely that it never loses the ability to be wondrous. Similarly, there were the two or three occasions when a northern goshawk, rarely seen in the open, suddenly came swooping out of the woods, hardly something to be anticipated.
Of course, these kinds of unanticipated but welcomed disruptions are not limited to the home property. The Upper Valley regularly hosts unexpected visitors. Last May, a red-headed woodpecker turned up on Kendall Station Rd. in Norwich, one of the first ever sightings in the region. At nearly the same time, birders were sent scrambling to the White River Jct. VA in hopes of glimpsing a northern wheatear, a Eurasian accidental that almost never turns up in the region.
And who can forget last February's great gray owl that caused birders to descend on Hanover’s Trescott Road in hopes of adding it to their life lists? It was yet another way we in the birding community are reminded that in the “natural order” of things there will be disorder, too. But in the case of us birders, disruption caused by the unexpected avian guest is an occurrence eagerly anticipated, and it is readily embraced when it does so.