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Enjoy the juncos while they're here

Mid-April takes on a variety of sights and sounds in the Northland. Many trees are in bloom with ripe catkins. Alders, aspens and hazels all hold these pollen-producing growths. Those pussy willow buds that started to open back in February are no...

Mid-April takes on a variety of sights and sounds in the Northland. Many trees are in bloom with ripe catkins. Alders, aspens and hazels all hold these pollen-producing growths. Those pussy willow buds that started to open back in February are now reaching maturity, and these same branches hold catkins with yellow pollen as well. Silver maple flowers are now joined by their cousins as red maples add tiny red blossoms to the woods.
A few butterflies, the angle-wings, are now awake and fluttering in sunlit sites. Chorus frogs and wood frogs join spring peepers as this early season's trio sing songs of courtship and territory ownership.
The bird migration that has been with us for more than a month changes at this time. It began in February with crows, eagles and hawks. Throughout March, as rivers opened, the water birds moved in. Canada geese, mallards and tundra swans settled in the wetlands. Some are still with us.
Next came the songbirds. The early grackles, red-winged blackbirds and robins are now joined by the finch-sparrow time of migration. Red-headed purple finches appear at the feeders. Sparrows such as the song sparrows, fox sparrows and tree sparrows have also arrived. And these brown birds also come to our yards.
A sparrow cousin is now here in big numbers as well. They first showed up in late March, but April is junco time.
Also known as snowbirds, juncos wear coats more gray or black than the sparrows. The junco is one of the few birds in which the common name and the scientific name are the same.
About 6 inches long, males are dark with a white belly and white feathers bordering the tail that are clearly seen as they fly. Females are much the same, except lighter in color. Both have small, light cone-shaped bills.
Junco flocks spent about two months with us last fall before they continued on to winter in the states south of us. It is interesting to note that even though they seldom winter with us in large numbers, they are nearly always pictured on or near snow.
Just as they left us then, flocks now arrive in spring. A bit more in plumage now and noisier, the junco flocks seem more restless than they did last fall.
These little gray birds often come to our yards and bird feeders where they take seed meals on the ground. Also feeding on seeds, they are frequently seen along the roadsides. Many Northland motorists in April see these flocks of little gray birds with white tails as they drive the regional roads.
Calls are a sharp chipping sound, but males at this time may sing a long trill (sometimes compared to a sewing machine) within these traveling flocks as well. Juncos don't last as long in our region as they did last fall, but instead they will be gone by next month, continuing the trip north. Nesting takes place in the boreal forests of Canada.
Soon insect-eating birds like phoebes and tree swallows will move in to add to the scene of our spring days, but for now let's enjoy this finch-sparrow time.
Larry Weber is author of the "Backyard Almanac." He lives in Carlton County and teaches natural science at Duluth's Marshall School.

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