The Sights and Sounds of Spring in Southern Delaware

By Matthew Babbitt, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Manager

Spring is in full bloom here at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center!  Flowers are blooming, bees are buzzing, birds are chirping, frogs are croaking, and fish are biting.  While spring brings plenty of excitement for nature enthusiasts of all passions, there are a few birds that have arrived here at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center that we hold near and dear to our heart.

The first “birds of spring” that arrived were the largest member of the swallow family, Purple Martins. These birds will spend the winter in South America and then migrate all over North America during their mating season. Adult females have a lighter breast than the adult males, and both take part in building nests and feeding young.

Purple Martins taking a break from chasing insects.  Photo by Matt Babbitt.
Purple Martins taking a break from chasing insects. Photo by Matt Babbitt.

Populations that migrate to the Eastern United States are completely dependent on man-made structures, like the ones pictured above, for nesting. Researchers theorize that this is due to conditioning over many generations, as early writings from European settlers note that Native Americans placed whitened gourds near their crops and dwellings to attract Purple Martins in order to take advantage of their voracious appetite for insects.

Not long after the Purple Martins arrived, their cousins and the most common member of the swallow family, Barn Swallows announced their arrival with flashes of glossy blue wings and their chitter-chattery calls. They winter in Central and South America and then make their way back to North America during their mating season. Barn Swallows are also largely dependent on man-made structures to build their nest upon, which they make out of a mixture of mud and grass. In the communities of Tangier and Smith Island, located in the heart of the Chesapeake Bay, watermen and their families affectionately call these birds “Shanty Birds”, due to the multitude of nests that are built each spring under their crab shanties that sit just above the water on pilings.

Later in the year, the Barn Swallows will be raising their families in mud cup nests attached to the barn, mill, or house here at Abbott's Mill.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani
Later in the year, the Barn Swallows will be raising their families in mud cup nests attached to the barn, mill, or house here at Abbott’s Mill. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Barn Swallows have the deepest forked tail of the swallow family, and you can catch a glimpse the bright white dots that highlight their tail when it is fully fanned out. Their swooping and diving through the air isn’t for naught, as all members of the swallow family are aerial insectivores, meaning they dine solely on flying insects. The adult male has bolder colorings and a darker throat than the adult female, and soon we will be seeing the pale-yellow beaks of their young.

Finally, just this past week we spotted the first pair of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds fluttering about in the native plant demonstration garden just in front of our Visitor Center. The only hummingbird that breeds in the Eastern United States, this short-footed, fast-flapping bird spends its winters in Central America, sometimes crossing the Gulf of Mexico during its migration. Adult males, like the one pictured below, are easily identified by their eye-catching, iridescent throat. All hummingbirds are uniquely adapted to feeding on the nectar of flowers with elongated beaks and wings that flap up to 53 times per second. Not only are they the smallest species of bird known, but they are also the only species that can both fly backwards and hover in place.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Derek Stoner.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Derek Stoner.

If you have a hummingbird feeder at home, making your own “nectar” is an easy process. Start by combining mixture of 4 parts water to 1 part sugar in a large pot. Bring the mixture to a boil, with occasional stirring to aid the dissolving process, and then let it cool. Don’t add food coloring or honey to your nectar mixture. It may be harmful to them, and all they want is sugar-water.  Clean your feeder once a week with a weak bleach and water solution to prevent and kill mold.  While hummingbirds will also dine on nature’s nectar, keeping your feeder out until their latest migration period, usually late September to early October, will help ensure your viewing pleasure and a final dose of energy for their long flight south. Additionally, research has found that these fascinating birds even remember where you put your feeder from year to year, so make sure to place your feeder in an optimal viewing area for you and your family and mark the spot when you take it down for the winter.

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