Bug Out With the Birds by Finding an Insect Hatch

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Bugs are a blessing and a curse for birders. Being swarmed by a squadron of mosquitos while walking through a marsh might as well be a birding rite of passage. And what would a summer outing be without the after-trip ritual of canvassing your entire body for ticks?

And yet, as birders we are keenly aware of the critical role insects play in the lives of avians. From the cornucopia of caterpillars that nourish young chicks in the spring to the droves of winged insects that supply valuable protein and energy for migrants, bugs are vital to birds and our ecosystems. In fact, they are so important that the theme of 2024 World Migratory Bird Day is insects. 

Given all that, this spring is the perfect time to more intentionally incorporate insects into your birding experience. And there’s no better place to start than with an insect hatch. Depending on the insect, hatches—when the next generation of a species ventures into the world en masse—can happen year-round or during a specific window. No matter where or when they happen, though, the frenzy of feasting that ensues is an opportunity to witness a diversity of species and fascinating behaviors. Here’s a quick primer on five hatches popular with birds and how you can take advantage. 

1.) Midges 

With hundreds of species, mosquito-size midges occur throughout North America and are especially plentiful around water. Some bite; many do not; all taste delicious to birds. Midge hatches happen  year-round, but the best time to bird one is when it coincides with peak migration in May. Checking reports on eBird and listservs is a good way to learn when and where a hatch is happening close by.

Who loves ’em: Flycatchers, orioles, warblers, vireos, kinglets, gnatcatchers, swallows, and more. 

2.) Mayflies 

A key insect for fly-fishing, various types of mayfly can be found across the country, hatching on or around bodies of water from spring through fall. The best way for birders to experience this buffet for fish and birds alike: Call your local fishing shop to learn the prime times and locations for hatches. For up-close action, consider birding by kayak.

Who loves ’em: Flycatchers, warblers, vireos, swallows, grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds, and more. 

3.) Termites 

Stumbling upon a termite hatch is a rare treat. Hatches begin in early spring and are highly concentrated events, with hundreds or even thousands of termites taking flight, attracting a rainbow of ravenous migrants. Finding a hatch is mostly luck, but birders will share locations for the ever ready, as these events typically last only an hour or so.

Who loves ’em: Flycatchers, warblers, vireos, kinglets, catbirds, thrushes, wrens, and more. 

4.) Tent Caterpillars 

These tree-dwellers’ large, silken “tents” are hard to miss, often spanning several limbs and sometimes containing multiple caterpillar colonies. Emerging in early May, eastern and western tent caterpillars create these white structures for protection from the elements and predators when they are not devouring the host tree’s leaves.

Who loves ’em: Cuckoos, Cedar Waxwings, jays, blackbirds, bluebirds, American Robins, and more. 

5.) Cicadas 

These big-eyed noisemakers hatch annually and periodically, with the latter happening in various broods and cycles. This year, in addition to the annual hatch, 17- and 13-year broods will emerge simultaneously across the Midwest for the first time in 221 years. This enormous event will start in late April and continue through June, creating an impossible-to-miss bug bonanza for birds and birders alike.

Who loves ’em: Mississippi Kites, Cedar Waxwings, swallows, grackles, bluebirds, wrens, and more. 

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