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Northland Nature: Arrival of a rusty blackbird flock

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

A rusty blackbird as seen on an autumn day. Note the rust-colored feathers on much of the body. (Photo by Mark Sparky Stensaas)

The calendar says that today is in October, but when I step outside this morning for a walk, it looks and feels more like a day in November. A cloudy day with snow on the ground and temperatures in the 20s seems to be ahead of the date. The birdfeeder has been active lately with blue jays, chickadees, nuthatches and a couple woodpeckers. A few juncos and active fox sparrows keep searching for seeds on the ground.

As I walk along the road, I’m met by a large flock of about 80 of juncos and tree sparrows. The snow cover has sent them to seek seeds along the roadside.

As I pause to take a closer look at the flock, I note a couple other sparrows here, too: white-throated and white-crowned. Crows and ravens fly over as they do each day, but I also see two bald eagles. Both are immatures, not yet with the white head and tail of adults.

Ice is forming at the edges of swamps and ponds as expected, but here are a few chilly but active yellow-rumped warblers. Earlier this season, they were frequently out on the lily pads where they could catch insects. They appear to be trying the same hunting today.

I leave the road to walk a trail in the woods. This route takes me near a swamp. In the shoreline alders, I see movement of tiny birds. Looking more carefully, I can see that they are kinglets and with patience, the colors on the heads tell of both the ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets. Despite their small size of 4 inches, their activity and constant wing flapping, makes them fairly easy to discern.


Here, near this wetland, I see other birds. Flitting about, they head for the edge of the swamp. Most are staying low. About the size of robins, which I have also seen flocks of recently, I note that their bodies are mostly dark. Clearly seeing the light brown heads, I realize that I am watching a flock of rusty blackbirds.

Rusty blackbirds are one of several kinds of blackbirds that can be seen in the Northland. Perhaps the red-winged blackbird, with its loud singing in spring, is best known. But grackles, Brewer’s blackbirds and cowbirds might be observed as well. Some stay to nest, others move farther north.

Of all the members of this group, the rusty blackbird is perhaps the northernmost nesting species, breeding in the boreal forests of Canada. Their appearance here every spring and fall is to be expected, but like other breeders in the taiga, they do not remain long. The name of rusty blackbird refers to the rust-colored feathers on much of the body at this time. They are more uniformly black in breeding season.

The flock that watched moved and fed along the edge of a wetland in silence. A few days earlier, I discovered a flock of their cousins, the grackles, that were anything but silent. Loud creaking calls emanated from this group as they fed. Often such flocks of grackles are mixed with other blackbirds.

What I see here today in this small flock is only rusty blackbirds. They’ll rest and feed here for several days or more before resuming their trip to wintering sites in southern states. They may be gone the next time I walk here, but for the time being, I’m glad to be watching these northern birds as they pause on their southing flight.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber

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Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books.
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