Northland Nature: Horned larks migrate early
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 email@example.com.
As we approach the halfway point in March, we have seen, during the early weeks, quite a change from the previous month. Daylight is 11 1/2 long now; the vernal equinox is only one week away. Sunlit days have also been accompanied with warmer temperatures and after a long absence, 50 degrees appears on our thermometers.
The responses to these changes are amazing. Among the trees that have stood out in the open during the dark and cold season, there is plenty happening.
Buds of willows and quaking aspens have opened to reveal a furry growth beneath. Later, these buds will develop into catkins, but now they are just interesting to look at and serve as a remedy for cabin and spring fever. Willows and maples also show yellow and reddish twigs.
But the deepest reds are on the small shrub of red-osier dogwoods; the whole plant above ground is now bright-red.
With the deciduous trees, sunlight has been absorbed on the bark of trunks and reradiated out to the surrounding snow, forming open spaces around the trees. I like to call these “tree circles” and they seem to appear at about the same time as maple sap begins to flow.
On a sunlit site, near a building, I found shoots of crocuses emerging, soon to bloom. Here too, in these hot spots, are the first dandelions.
Among animals, early spring also happens. In the yard, I’ve noted the return of waking raccoons, skunks and chipmunks. During my walks, I see and hear flocking crows — probably migrants. Early movement is also going on with raptors: eagles, red-tailed hawks, harriers and kestrels. Searching for some open waters are returning geese, swans and mergansers. And we may also see some migrants right in our yard.
After watching the wintering birds that regularly arrived at the feeders all winter, we might see some different ones in March. It is not unusual that passing redpolls, pine siskins, goldfinches and purple finches will be here.
Early sparrows, such as song sparrows, fox sparrows, tree sparrows and juncos, can be seen, too. Though many robins winter with us, I usually find their first migrants during March.
Soon, my morning walks will sound with songs of red-winged blackbirds at swamps and grackles calling from roadside trees. After dusk, the strange woodcock ritual of calls, dance and flight takes place in the wetlands.
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One place that we are not as likely to look for early migrants is out in the fields and open spaces. Here, the snow tends to be drifted and may linger longer with cool March winds.
But here and often along the roadsides, are a couple hardy field birds. Flocking as we saw them in late fall are snow buntings, showing white in flight. Also, in small flocks or alone are the inconspicuous horned larks. These larks are more likely to stay while snow buntings move north.
Horned larks get their name from black feathers sticking up above the head. Birds are about 7 inches long and though they have some yellow on the throat, they are mostly brown and likely to be overlooked.
They tend to stay on the ground, often walking instead of flying. Feeding on seeds of field plants, they now are mating and preparing for the new season.
Not as well-known as many others, but horned larks are regular early-March migrants.