Northland Nature: Spring birds at a prairie stopoverAnyone traveling to the south during late March is able to leave winter behind in the Northland and enter into the coming spring.
Anyone traveling to the south during late March is able to leave winter behind in the Northland and enter into the coming spring.
With each mile going in that direction, the changes become more apparent. Such was the situation with a trip that I recently took in late March.
Subzero temperatures and a new snowfall gave us a sendoff. We had more than twenty inches of snow on the ground and ice covering nearly all the waterways, moving or still. The ice and snow remained with us until we left Minnesota.
It was not until the southern part of the state that we could see the ground that had been blanketed for such a long time. In Iowa, we finally saw rivers breaking free from the ice grip, and at several sites, we glimpsed open water in lakes as well.
Besides the changes in weather, I always seek migrants that are heading in the very direction that I am leaving. Along the roadsides of I-35, I saw bald eagles, red-tailed hawks and a couple of trumpeter swans.
But it was in central Iowa when the spring began more to appear. Flocks of Canada geese flew over and congregated in fields while the first robins showed up on lawns. Here too, I saw groupings of juncos, and it was a delight to hear songs of cardinals.
Our route took us to the west where we paused in central Nebraska to observe one of nature’s great happenings: the spring flight of the sandhill cranes. Each March, a section of the Platte River in the middle of the state is host to approximately one-half million of these tall birds. The cranes wintered in states to the south and will breed in the far north, but they stop here to feed and rest as the thaw reaches further north. They feed in the surrounding cornfields while resting is done on the numerous gravel bars of this flat wide river.
Here, too, the cranes display in a series of dances and leaps for pair bonding. These antics make crane watching even more interesting. Each morning they leave the night sites of the river and take flight to the fields and food. Late in the day, they reverse the route.
Not only are the birds large and their flocks huge, they are also very loud. Days near the Platte River at this time are never without sights and sounds of the sandhill cranes.
With all this happening from the cranes, it may seem that it is hard to notice that they are not alone here. While watching the cranes, I also saw nearly a dozen kinds of ducks and many more species of songbirds. While they were fewer in number, the ducks were into the new season. Mallards, gadwalls, pintails, ring-necks, scaup, wigeon, shovelers, redheads, canvasbacks and green-winged and blue-winged teals all showed their bright plumage.
Nearby in the parks and woods, songbirds tried out their new tunes for the season. Despite the chill of the mornings, I heard regularly the songs of mourning doves, robins, cardinals, juncos, song sparrows and red-winged blackbirds. Some of these birds will be in the Northland later this spring; others go more to the west.
While the sandhill cranes congregate in numbers of hundreds of thousands, it’s hard to believe that others could be as numerous, but when watching the many flocks, often in the hundreds of snow geese, it is possible that another water bird may be as abundant during these spring days on the prairie.
For most of the Northland, geese usually means Canada geese. They come back in March and with large bodies and loud sounds, they are hard to not see during ice-out time. But here in the prairie, they were left far behind by their smaller cousins. Snow geese are called that since the bodies are covered with white feathers and black wing tips. Scattered among the whites were some of a darker phase often called “blue morphs.”
Like the sandhill cranes, the snow geese are feeding and resting as they move north and like some of the cranes, they nest in the arctic region. Most pass to the west of the twin ports in their spring migration, though I have seen a few during most years.
Whether it was the cranes, geese or various other water birds or the singing songbirds, they all spoke of the new season and an eagerness to move to their homelands.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o email@example.com.