When it comes to Northland birds, we usually divide them into four groups. Probably the most common are the smallest ones, the songbirds. With our abundant rivers, swamps and lakes, we see plenty of water birds. Taking advantage of prey of almost any type, are the raptors: hawks, eagles, etc. And then there are a couple of kinds of gallinaceous birds: grouse and turkeys. As we get further into March, all of these kinds become more likely to be seen or heard.
Songbirds got off to an early start this year and during the mild days of February, many of us listened to the springtime songs and sounds of the black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, pine siskins and purple finches. These were accompanied by the drumming and calls of woodpeckers, especially the large pileated woodpeckers. And the crows and ravens with plenty of sounds let us know of their presence.
Now, in March, we look for more songbirds, often early migrants. Each day we search for the arrival of robins, grackles or red-winged blackbirds returning from winters south of us, but not so far. Meanwhile the goldfinches that have wintered with us live up to their names and start to take on the yellow-gold plumage. Even the starlings that we may not appreciate, exchange their spotted winter attire for a glossy coat and the bill turns yellow.
In the opening wetlands, waterfowl such as mallards, goldeneyes, mergansers and Canada geese appear as though they were watching for the right time to return to these waters. Along the edge we may see the wading antics of a great blue heron. For the most part, when water birds return from wintering elsewhere, we will see them. The gallinaceous birds (often called “chicken-like” birds) may be a bit harder to find, but as spring returns to the woods so does the sounds of drumming male ruffed grouse and gobbling turkeys. And out in some open lek, the sharp-tailed grouse display for the rights to court a female.
Some raptors have been with us all winter and many a night in February has had its silence broken by the calls of great horned and barred owls. Among the diurnal raptors, we are most likely to observe bald eagles, but now in this springing month, these large raptors may be joined by the early migrations of the large buteo; the red-tailed hawk, a small accipiter; the sharp-shinned hawk, a little falcon; the American kestrel and a soaring harrier. All are quick to come back after a winter away and now are searching for prey.
Also searching for meals, but not the same type, are the turkey vultures. These large black birds go for carrion that may be left from the winter. And then sometimes we get a special sight.
Not long ago, I was driving on a rural county road during a clear day in February. When driving such roads at this time, it is not unusual to see soaring birds overhead. Most of these are ravens and their acrobatic and agile flights are also a pleasure to watch. But this time it was different. This bird was larger and flew higher in the sky.
Stopping for a closer look, I could see the dark body and long wingspan. I was observing a golden eagle. These birds often get confused with the immature bald eagles. This one, however, had different white patterns on wings and tail that kept it from being confused with the bald. I was a golden eagle.
It wasn’t that long ago that we regarded the golden eagle as a bird only found in the west. A sighting in the Northland would be a rarity. Still a bit uncommon in the region, we now know that golden eagles winter in the southern part of the state and adjacent Wisconsin, in the bluff country back from the Mississippi River. Bald eagles spend this time closer to the river. While the bald eagles have a winter diet of fish and other carrion, the goldens continue their hunting of small mammals in the open sites in these bluffs and river hills. Both have superb eyesight allowing them to find food and stay fed during the cold season.
After wintering in these sites to our south, the golden eagles move north quite early in the season. Whether they breed in Canada, either in the far northwest, Yukon or Alaska; or the northeast, remote parts of Quebec, they could very well pass over the Northland on their way in late February or early March, as was the one that I watched. With its excellent eyesight, it was continuing to hunt as it worked its way to the breeding sites. Yes, sighting golden eagles can happen here.