On Thursday, March 21, 2013, the first full day of spring, I took a walk to get the morning paper, and detoured home through a local park. At one point, I crossed a brook. From the bridge, I saw a small gray bird fly to a branch and bop its tail.
I had seen my first Eastern Phoebe of the season.
The Phoebe is a member of the flycatcher family. There are three types of Phoebe: the Eastern, the Say‘s (its western equivalent), and the Black (found in the Southwest United States, Mexico, and along the California coast).
In New Jersey, the Eastern Phoebe is one of the earliest of spring migrant birds.
According to my various nature guides, Eastern Phoebes show up in my region somewhere around March 10-20. Marie Winn, author of “Red-Tails in Love,” posted in her blog on March 15, that the first Phoebe had been seen in New York’s Central Park that day.
So mine was more or less on time.
Yet, it did not feel like spring. The temperature at 8:30 that March morning was in the upper 20s, and it was cloudy with a breeze. I was wearing a thin scarf around my head and neck, a hat over that, and a warm parka with the hood up.
This Phoebe was hunting – until I spooked it. It eats insects, and in the cold there were few to be seen – at least by me.
The year before, we’d had next to no snow, and the temperature was unusually warm in March. But this year we’ve had the winter that won’t end. The 50-degree days – normal temperature – had been few and far between, and the with weather casters predicting snow and warmth maybe by April, I was feeling distinctly depressed about the continuing cold. Until I saw the Phoebe. It hadn’t heard the warnings about climate change. Its internal clock said it was time to leave the winter grounds in the deep south of the United States and Mexico, and head north.
Phoebes are remarkably faithful to a good nesting spot. Once found, they will return every year. When John J. Audubon was living in Pennsylvania, he tied silver thread on the legs of young Phoebes he caught. The next spring he caught two that returned — they still had the thread. It was the first bird-banding experiment in America.
I, meanwhile, feel stuck here. It’s getting harder for me to get through a cold New Jersey winter. I feel achy and dried out by the furnace heat, and can’t just pick up and head south for the winter.
The Phoebe reminds me that there will be other migrating birds coming through my area in the next month or two on their way to northern breeding grounds. Some will travel no farther than New Jersey, and will provide a reason for me to get out of bed early on a Saturday morning.
By then – climate willing – it should be warmer.