GAINESVILLE ‒ The internal signal to migrate sends birds on marathon journeys that can cross continents and oceans. Many of the birds that fill our yards and woods with song throughout the summer – vireos, tanagers, warblers, and flycatchers - will wing their way to Central and South America in September to winter in habitats replete with insects, berries, seeds and other food items necessary to sustain them for half of their annual life cycle. Even the ruby-throated hummingbirds that sipped nectar from flower blossoms and feeders vacate Florida and zoom southward to distant environs.

After many of our summer breeding birds depart in September, the true snowbirds slowly filter in and join the year-rounders such as Carolina wrens, tufted titmice, and Carolina chickadees. Flocks of tiny birds, some dazzling shades of yellow, others nondescript brown, many hyperactively pumping their tails up and down, and still others flashing yellow rumps as they flush to another feeding spot, replace our winter migrants. These are the true snowbirds from Maine, New York, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and other northern reaches that have departed their snowy habitat for Florida’s mild and more hospitable winter.

Many Floridians mark winter by the sight of the most notorious of snowbirds – sandhill cranes and American robins. And those who stock their bird feeders will marvel at the abundance of local birds as well as the snowbirds that visit your yard. If you place a heaping tablespoon of grape jelly in a dish suspended from your bird feeder, and wait patiently, you may be gifted with the sight of the most spectacularly plumaged snowbird of all, the Baltimore oriole. Or another winter treasure, a painted bunting, may sneak to the feeder to dine on the smorgasbord of seed.

What are some strategies for spotting the avian snowbirds? Groups of warblers – palm, pine, and yellow-rumped – form conspicuous flocks as they forage for seeds in grassy fields and road edges. Eastern phoebes are also quite easy to discern. Look for a cardinal-sized bird with a smudgy dark head, tail pumping up and down, and perched prominently on a fence post or exposed branch waiting to swoop out and nab an aerial insect. Two snowbird woodpeckers grace us with their winter presence – Northern flicker and yellow-bellied sapsucker. The tell-tale call of the flicker’s high, piercing, and clear keew or the sapsucker’s mewing neeah will reveal their whereabouts.

One technique that savvy birdwatchers employ to locate hard-to-find snowbirds (or migrants that pass through during fall and spring migration) is to closely scrutinize flocks of local birds, the tufted titmice and Carolina chickadees. These year-round residents are the most knowledgeable at finding local food sources, detecting neighborhood predators such as outdoor cats, and sounding the alarm when the resident Cooper’s hawk arrives. The snowbirds often use the knowledge of the locals by following along and forming mixed flocks with the year-round residents.

If you would like to learn more about attracting birds to your yard – both winter snowbirds and year-round locals – consider attending the Alachua Audubon Society-sponsored Backyard Birding Tour on Saturday, Feb. 18 from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Explore some of Gainesville’s premier backyard birding habitats on a self-guided tour of five to six yards and learn how to attract birds to your own yard. Tickets are $12 each and available for purchase at Wild Birds Unlimited, 4121 N.W. 16th Blvd. Educational displays and bird experts will be present at each tour stop.

This winter spread your wings by learning to create a bird-friendly yard and discover chipping sparrows, orange-crowned warblers, gray catbirds, and others that have heeded their internal signal to flee their frosty habitats and spend the winter with us in sunny Florida.

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