Northland Nature: Loud bird trio herald spring's return
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at email@example.com.
At the time of the vernal equinox, we see light equaling darkness and this light will continue to lengthen until the summer solstice. The light and warmth has prevailed over the darkness and cold; spring things are beginning to happen.
In some sunlit sites, the snow melts enough to reveal the bare ground that has been covered for months. Here may be the beginning of green grasses, perhaps shoots of crocus and new dandelion buds. But with the longer days, many of us are looking for the beginning of the returning bird migrants.
Often because of diets, many birds find it more of an advantage, though quite costly, to spend the cold season in another place that’s warmer and more likely to provide food. But with the longer day, they decide to go back north.
Driving in the region at this time, I have often noted flocks of small, white birds along the roadsides. Snow buntings, so common in the fall, are now making their return and feeding on roadside seeds. Here, too, may be horned larks, another bird of the fields, and maybe even early killdeer.
If there is open water in the St. Louis River, mergansers, mallards and goldeneyes may be present, all coping with the chilly conditions. Along the edge, the first red-winged blackbirds can be seen, too, as they claim a territorial nesting site.
In yards, we may see another blackbird, the grackles, calling and feeding. Also, in yards and parks, we look for the first migrant robins, purple finches, juncos and song sparrows.
Along the roadsides are some raptors seeking meals of small mammals and birds. Red-tailed hawks alight on poles and trees while the much smaller American kestrels perch on utility wires and harriers patrol on wing.
Though all of these will call, some sing, and most are not loud. However, three other migrants of early spring are very loud when they return: Canada geese, trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes.
A typical scenario of the return of these birds in early spring is that despite their large size, we are likely to hear them before seeing them upon their arrival.
A calm early March morning may be punctuated by the loud squawking calls of Canada geese. Looking up, I’ll usually see a small flock of these grayish geese. (Some of the geese flocks may be quite large.) Shortly after this group passes over, a pair will explore and land in a nearby wetland. Apparently, these are the ones who nested here last year, reclaiming their home despite the present ice and snow.
Usually not in flocks, but maybe in a pair, are the even larger white water birds: trumpeter swans. Flying over, they often give the blasting sound that gives them their name. Not that long ago, these birds were rare in the region. They have come back well and now are a regular and loud part of the spring avifauna.
About a week later, toward the end of the month, I’ll note the guttural call of the sandhill cranes. About the same size as great blue herons, but flying in a different pattern, they often circle as they give their diagnostic calls. Sandhill cranes are another bird that seems to be more common now than formerly.
All of these large loud birds will nest somewhere in the Northland. All three go south for a while, only to return early in the early spring. Even though their calls are not what we would label as music, they are welcome sounds to all of us who wintered here.