August is that time of year when birds become less active and so do those of us in search of birds. The nesting season has ended for most species and the birds are quiet. Young birds have left the nest and are learning to fend for themselves. Their parents aren’t so busy defending their territories, chasing off interlopers, collecting food for their babies — and themselves.
Because they’re less active and less vocal, they’re harder to find. Many birds are showing the rigors of the breeding season as well, their feathers are tattered until they complete a post-breeding molt when they replace worn feathers with new ones. The cardinals in my yard are downright ratty looking, as if they’d wound up on the losing end of wrestling match.
Late summer’s high temperatures and humidity make it unpleasant to get out and look for birds, especially during the extreme weather we’ve experienced this summer.
And so, it took a little extra effort for me venture to Historic Bethabara Park. The greenway there is one of the easiest places in town for birding. The southern section of the trail leads from Indiana Avenue to Old Town Road, a pleasant half-mile long, well-paved trail that’s shaded by a nice variety of hardwood trees.
But on my way, I found the park’s garden competing with the greenway for my attention on this early August morning.
The pollinator garden at the north end of the garden was doing its job attracting lots of tiger swallowtails and silver-spotted skippers.
The garden is painted in summertime with purple coneflower, orange butterfly weed, goldenrod, many-colored zinnias, marigolds, purple Joe-Pye weed, and morning glories in shades of blue, lavender and pink.
Goldfinches perched on sunflower seed-heads the size of dinner plates, gauging the seeds for ripeness. Black-eyed Susans will soon drop their petals and offer another source of seeds to the finches.
Woodpeckers were present in gradations. The smallest — a downy woodpecker — scaled the stalk of a sunflower, listening with keen hearing for signs of insect larvae inside, while it’s slightly larger look-alike cousin — the hairy woodpecker — hitched along the bark of a cherry tree on the garden’s perimeter.
A bit of percussion was provided by the mid-size red-bellied woodpecker, its rat-a-tat-tat ringing out as it searched for a morsel in a tuliptree snag.
A pileated woodpecker, the size of a crow, flew over, then another. These giant woodpeckers are seen year-round in the woodlands that surround the gardens, and the frequency of sightings confirms that they nest nearby each summer.
A weather-worn picket fence surrounds the vegetable garden, and a family of robins searched the lawn outside the fence for bugs. Young robins are at that awkward teen-age phase, the fading spots on their breast-feathers as embarrassing as acne.
A song sparrow sang from atop a picket, adding his musical score to the sensual panorama, then flew to a flowering coreopsis, wantonly disobeying a sign the cautions visitors against touching the plants.
A ruby-throated hummingbird materialized from nowhere to pause at a brilliant red cardinal flower and sip at its spray of blossoms, then noticed me standing three feet away, shifted into reverse as only a hummingbird can and zoomed across the garden.
The pleasant sounds of the song sparrow were briefly overwhelmed by the harsh rattle of a cicada in flight — an unmistakable sound of summer. Later in the day, the air would be filled with the din of this year’s entire cicada population — almost deafening at times.
As night-time falls, their racket is replaced by the softer sounds of katydids and crickets.
Historic Bethabara Park is one of Winston-Salem’s many treasures, and the beauty of its garden and the birds it attracts are bonuses, even in the swelter of summer.