Until you've seen them, the migration is out of whack and May isn't May, no matter how many warblers you've seen. Then, after you've seen them a few times, they're everywhere, it's enough already. They roam the canopy like loudspeaker ads on election day (unless you're looking for them; then they're as scarce as a kind word).
Ladies and germs! Give it up for the big-color trio of the treetops: the grosbeak, the oriole, and the tanager!
It is not easy to call out a rose-breasted grosbeak, even to fellow birders. Its name is too long, and there's no abbreviation that doesn't sound awkward or cute. "There's an RBG! A rosie! A ro-gro!" And if you mention it to a nonbirder, it comes off sounding like a birdwatching parody: Look! A rose-breasted grosbeak! A double-breasted seersucker! But the bird itself is one of the first ahhs of the season, and even after it becomes too common to get excited about, you can't help but have another look at the Bib.
You hear it first. A clear rapid whistling meandering up and down, doubling back, loudly and richly, the vocal equivalent of créme brulée. It even wobbles a little, like the boy's moved by his own performance. "A robin with singing lessons!" exult some bird books, not exactly a compliment to either bird. It's true, its outpouring is sort of robinlike, with the merest of pauses between phrases. But it's chestier than a robin, a backyard Pavorotti. And instead of the tenor's white handkerchief, it's got the Bib.
Sometimes, just to be mean, it won't show the bib. Just the back of the black-and-white tuxedo. But it's the bib we stalk it through the jungles of eastern North America to see. The bib is the RB of the RBG. We don't care so much about the gross beak, even though it's a snazzy ivory against ebony, like a piano's keys.
No, it's when it turns into the sun, crisp white shirtfront stained with a delta of rosé, especially if it's our FOY (first-of-year) grosbeak, that's the moment—maybe the first big smile of the season, meaning no disrespect to the palm warbler or the phoebe. Not that all grosbeaks are equally endowed. Some bibs are small goblets, others are cups that runneth over. But it's that color, that rose, that stimulates our receptors as if we were bees or female grosbeaks or thirsty winos. A little more to the left. Perfect.
Next: Lord Baltimore