Blue Ridge Naturalist: The Natural World Is an Open Book That Anyone Can Read

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© Marlene A. Condon 

Although American Goldfinches can be seen almost the year-around in Virginia, the birds you see in summer are not the same individuals you see in winter, despite what you may read to the contrary. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.
Although American Goldfinches can be seen almost the year-around in Virginia, the birds you see in summer are not the same individuals you see in winter, despite what you may read to the contrary. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

About the middle of April, just after the azaleas have begun to bloom in our area, you can expect to spot a male ruby-throated hummingbird. The males leave Central America before the females to head into the United States and Canada, where they seem to follow the northward progression of azalea bloom.

Many folks immediately put up sugar-water feeders once they know that these tiny birds have arrived, but then are puzzled and disappointed when the hummers disappear by May. Most people then assume that the first hummingbirds of spring are migrants with no intention of staying in Virginia and so they have left to continue their journey northward.

But that assumption is incorrect. Although the ruby-throats appear to be gone, I can assure you that they do not leave the area.

Every spring when the tulip poplar trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) start to bloom, hummers desert feeders to obtain their nourishment from tulip poplar blossoms.  I’ve been taking notes about the natural world for many years and the hummer “disappearance” each year correlates exactly with the blooming of the tulip poplar trees in my area.

And thanks to a microphone on my porch where the feeder is located, I know these birds are still in the vicinity because I continue to hear a hummingbird around the porch. The hum of its wings is quite audible. It doesn’t make use of the feeder, but it comes by once a day as if it just wants to make sure that the feeder is still there!

Tulip poplars produce huge flowers that provide an abundance of nectar to many kinds of insects as well as our hummingbirds. Consequently, the hummers do not need to depend upon human handouts because they can just spend each day up high in the tree canopy, visiting the tulip poplar blossoms that dwarf them.

By looking up at the tall tulip poplar trees with binoculars, anyone can ascertain that is, indeed, where the hummingbirds are “hanging out.” You might not always spy one up there (the trees are fully leafed out at this time), but with due diligence, you’ll get an opportunity to see that the hummingbirds are definitely still around.  And once those trees have stopped blooming, the hummers will immediately be back at the feeder!

Sometimes people have expressed doubts when I’ve put forth this information.  But what’s wonderful about the natural world is that it’s truly an open book that anyone can read and from which anyone can discern the truth.

All you need to do is to observe what takes place when there is no manipulation of nature by man. Of course, you must also have an open mind that harbors no prejudices as a result of what you’ve previously heard or read. It also helps to document your observations.

Having a microphone outside and keeping detailed notes helped me to discover the truth not only about hummingbird behavior in spring, but also about goldfinch behavior in fall in Virginia.

The American Goldfinch is a gregarious bird, so if you keep a feeder of sunflower seeds and/or a water pan filled with fresh, clean water in your yard, numerous goldfinches will visit for food and drink every day without fail.

But by the end of September, just a few weeks after the young-of-the-year goldfinches have left the nest (these finches are our latest-nesting birds), the goldfinch chatter and the “crying” of the juvenile goldfinches begging to be fed will be absent.

The feeder and the water pan will be far less busy because the goldfinches—young and all—have left.

The word from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is that goldfinches migrate, but only a short distance south and only from the coldest areas of the United States and southern Canada where they nest in summer. They move to more southerly regions where the minimum January temperature is no colder than zero degrees Fahrenheit on average.

Therefore experts consider our Virginia goldfinches to be “permanent residents,” which suggests that all of them will hatch, live out their lives, and die here in our state. Look in any guidebook or bird checklist and that is the description that you will see.  Look up the definition of “resident bird” and you’ll find that it’s synonymous with “non-migratory.”

But the experts are wrong. Although the disappearance of goldfinches goes unnoticed by most bird watchers (and, apparently, scientists) who don’t have an expectation that these birds will leave, I have been paying such close attention to what’s going on in the natural world for such a long time that I know for a fact that our goldfinches disappear for about a month or so every autumn.

One fall morning in 2011, I was outside well before the sun was due to come up when I suddenly heard goldfinches chattering from high above me in the pitch-black sky. I could tell they were going over from north to south in the darkness, as many of our migratory songbirds do. I couldn’t see the birds, but their abundant chattering for a minute or so suggested that there were quite a few of them on the move.

Birds don’t move northwards as the weather gets colder so our summer goldfinches have undoubtedly moved a bit farther south come fall when they disappear.  When goldfinches again appear, then, they must be migrants flying into the area from farther north.

The fact is that each and every one of us can freely take note of the natural world that surrounds us and we can often do this without special equipment and often without needing to leave home. Yet an incredible amount of misinformation is put out to the public, some by “experts.”

For example, entomologist Doug Tallamy writes in his well-known book, Bringing Nature Home, that the tulip poplar “is one of the least productive forest species in terms of its ability to support wildlife—insects and vertebrates alike.”

Yet nothing could be further from the truth, as you should expect for a native plant!  This stately tree provides nectar for an array of insects as well as obviously being an important food source for hummingbirds.

The numerous seeds that result from the fertilization of the blooms by the great variety of nectar-feeders provide a crucial supply of food for birds (such as titmice and cardinals) as well as mammals (such as squirrels and mice) from late fall into winter.

The leaves are fed upon by many kinds of caterpillars (such as those of the tiger swallowtail butterfly and the tuliptree silkmoth) and when the tree is young, deer feed upon the leaves that they can reach.

I can’t explain why so much information published about our natural world is incorrect. I suspect a lot of it has to do with people writing about subject matter that they have little, if any, personal experience with. And then this misinformation gets perpetuated by others who repeat it as if it must be true and soon no one questions it.

But if you pay close attention to the natural world, you can’t help but find out for yourself what information is correct and what isn’t. You might even discover something that no one else has noticed before.

According to a poster in my office given to me by my husband, “Discovery” results from “venturing beyond the obvious to see what others don’t see!”