May’s Migrants

As sure as April showers will bring May flowers to our area, April skies will bring May migrants. In today’s uncertain times, these simple, undeniable facts can bring a welcome respite to open eyes. As bird migration really hits its stride in the next few weeks, it will be the open eyes crammed into a pair of binoculars getting the best looks, as our most colorful visitors are among the smallest.

Adult male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)
© Brian E. Small/VIREO

None are smaller than the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the only hummer we see regularly on the East Coast. It often surprises people to learn how omnipresent these birds can be in our area during the breeding season, once they learn how to spot them. If you have never seen one before, think large, fast bug, like a cicada on fire. Since nectar can make up 80% or more of the bird’s diet, nectar-rich, tubular flowers are great spots to stake out over the summer. This time of year, when nectar sources are less prevalent, hummers can often be found hunting insects from the treetops, accounting for the bulk remainder of their diet.

Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) in flight. © Rob Curtis/VIREO

Returning now over Center City is what some might find a surprising relative to hummingbirds: the Chimney Swift. While almost every single species of the roughly 350 species of hummingbirds sports some shimmering, iridescent plumage, Chimney Swifts look rather dull, drab and well, sooty. Their lifestyle is no less remarkable though, as they literally live on the wing. They have to – they simply cannot perch due to their short legs and pamprodactyl feet, meaning all four toes are facing front. This adaptation is perfect for clinging to vertical surfaces where they roost and nest though, like the interior of a hollow tree or, you guessed it -chimneys! Sadly though, Chimney Swift populations have been in steep decline, in correlation with the disappearance of the once common open chimneys in our cities and suburbs.

A rare glimpse of a Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) perched on a fence post.
© George Armistead/VIREO

The first wave of wood warblers began moving in and through the region in the last few weeks of April. Yellow-rumped Warblers dominate the trees, if a diminutive warbler can do such a thing. Due to their numbers, they will be the easiest warbler to spot for the uninitiated. As with most warblers, listen for a short, quick somewhat delicate song and look for a small, fast-moving object, mostly in the upper two thirds of the trees. As implied, a bright lemon-yellow patch on the posterior might be the first distinction you see. Males will be more distinctively marked then their counterparts, but these “butter butts” are probably middle of the road as far as adorned warblers go.

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) dining on poison ivy berries during migration.
© Johan Schumacher/VIREO

Magnolia Warblers are showing up now too and looking a bit more bold, with a lot more yellow below. Yellow Warblers have more yellow still and are present also, along with the yellow color scheme you may have noticed by now. In contrast, Black-and-white Warblers feature no yellow feathers or any color other than their name implies, but are striking nonetheless. They are another good entry-level warbler that’s not too small, high in the canopy or elusive to find. Look for them clinging to the sides of tree trunks and branches as they wind or hitch their way around trunks and limbs seemingly immune to gravity.

Adult male Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) from Jamaica Bay, NY.
© Johan Schumacher/VIREO
Adult male Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia) in Chicago, IL.
© Rob Curtis/VIREO

This week and next will bring some truly eye-opening bird biodiversity to our area, and quite arguably the best birding of the year. It looks like it will be paired with some of the nicest weather we’ve seen yet this year, so there is no time like now to take in your next Zoom meeting on the deck with your binoculars.

Adult male Black-and-White Warbler (Mniotilta varia) from Ontario, Canada.
© Glenn Bartley/VIREO

VIREO (Visual Resources for Ornithology) is the foremost global collection of bird photographs taxonomically curated at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. As both a contributor to and user of, VIREO recommends Audubon Guide Apps, the Stokes Guide to Birds of North America and the Fieldstone Guide to Birds of North America, all of which feature thousands of photos from the VIREO Collection. 

by Dan Thomas
VIREO Collection & Intellectual Property Manager

15 comments

  1. Not sure how rare it is here, but we saw our first indigo bunting outside at our seed bell this week in Princeton, NJ. It was a gorgeous shade of blue!

    1. We have a pair of Indigo Buntings that appear as if they’re going to stay! So beautiful! Also, for the first time we have a pair of Phoebes who have a nest on our patio! So fun to watch! Harleysville, PA

    2. Last week 9May 4-5) we had two Indigo Buntings and two Rose-breasted Grosbeak. They were here for two days, now they are gone. The same thing happened the same time last year. They are beautiful birds! We have tons of Goldfinches and Purple Finches all summer long. We also have a lot of Ruby Throated Hummingbirds all summer. They arrived here around April 23. We live near Avalon in South Jersey.

  2. So far here in East Falls:
    Black throated blue warbler
    Black and white warblers
    scarlet tanagers
    chimney swifts
    baltimore orioles
    blackburnian warblers
    wood thrush
    hermit thrush
    oven bird
    catbirds everywhere
    been a busy spring!

  3. Here on the edge of Ambler I have lots of great bird habitat – brush, dead trees, different types of bushes. Birds are always entertaining. Spring migrants I’ve noticed this year which also came through last year have been a Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a Common Yellow Throat. Had Indigo Buntings last year but haven’t spotted them this year. Spotted some chimney swifts in the air, but not sure if they will be nesting in my chimney again. Didn’t see much of them last spring/summer. I’ve been mostly entertained by a family of foxes (4 babies) who have a den in the brush/woods behind my yard.

  4. In Wynnewood last week we had an indigo bunting, rose breasted Grosbeak. We continue to have catbirds, cowbirds, and the usual array of cardinals, purple finches, nuthatches, chickadees and titmouse. goldfinches.

  5. In Chester twp, pa., I’m seeing what looks like cardinals. They greet me in the morning near the tree outside my window.

  6. We had 2 male Baltimore Orioles and 2 ruby throated hummingbirds at our feeders today. Morrisville, PA

  7. We live in Logan Square and had a scarlet tanager on a honey locust tree opposite our 6th floor balcony the last 3 days.

  8. This Spring our feeders have been visited by Blue jays, cardinals, a variety of sparrows including white crested sparrow, starlings, dark-eyed juncos and a rose-breasted grosbeak. (Western New York)

  9. Every spring in Fox Chase since 2012 Grackles flock to my yard. They build their nest, raise their young then leave till next spring. Always a great pleasure when they return once again. I also see cardinals, blue jays, mockingbirds, cat birds, goldfinch, sparrows, robins, doves, blackcap buntings and hawks. Two times a heron unfortunately fed in my fishpond which shocked me to see this bird in the city.

  10. We live close to Rancocas Creek near its confluence with the Delaware, in Burlington County, NJ. So far this year, we’ve seen red bellied and downy woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, a transient indigo bunting, cat and mockingbirds, chickadees, titmice, a sharp shinned hawk and a bald eagle (nesting a bit north of here), a pair of mallards, and a flock of wild turkeys (real oven birds 😉 ) earlier in the spring. Plus lots of great blue herons on their way to and from a rookery.

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