For the Birds Radio Program: Cruisin' with Spring
On March 15 and 16, I drove down to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and back to Duluth, bringing my son home for spring break. The 800-mile round trip gave me a lovely opportunity to witness the progression of spring.
I left the day after a snowstorm, and drove through a wintry landscape the first hundred and sixty miles through Eau Claire. But despite snow on the ground and gray clouds above, intimations of spring filled the air: a few wedges of Canada geese overhead, dozens of red-tailed hawks in trees along Highway 53, and a whiff of warmth in the southern breeze.
By the time I reached Tomah, more geese were coursing overhead, and I spotted my first red-winged blackbirds perched on cattails in ditches along the road. Hawks were becoming more numerous, too—along some stretches I was seeing two or three red-tails every mile, along with a smattering of kestrels and one or two rough-legged hawks.
The final leg of my trip down was made after dark, but I woke to a sunny, calm morning in Milwaukee. My first birds of the day were robins singing and running in still-brown lawns. These were all adult males—females hadn’t arrived yet. Some were in migratory flocks, running together in large groups on the university grounds. Others had finished their journey, and were singing their territorial declarations from leafless trees.
The first robin song of the season always gives me a surge of joyful energy. The robin song is one that I’ve heard more than just about any other bird sound; they sing in my yard every day for months each year, and theirs is one of the first bird songs I learned as a child growing up in Chicago. It’s that very familiarity that makes the first robin song of spring so welcome. After a long winter, we hunger for the warmth and beauty and innocence of earlier springs. A robin song can open a floodgate of warm childhood memories in its mellow, fluted airs.
Robins weren’t the only ones awake, of course. I heard a crow make its rattle call and looked up to see a Cooper’s hawk chasing one out of a little campus woodlot. House sparrows were cheeping, and cardinals whistling, “What cheer!”
The interstate highway between Milwaukee and Madison cuts through wetlands, and everywhere red-winged blackbirds were flying and perching. In a few short grass areas I spotted grackles puffing out in macho hormonal displays. Ducks and geese dotted the sky.
Several northern harriers floated above the marshes with their distinctive, butterfly-like flight, flushing up ducks that wheeled and darted every which way. The birds coursing through the clear sky on the warm breeze seemed to make my heart beat stronger; my lungs draw in more air. And something in the air drew my car to Goose Pond in Columbia County. My son, impatient to get home after a long term, indulgently allowed me time to take it all in. The pond was mostly ice- and goose-covered, a couple hundred Canada geese and forty or so swans milling about on the ice along with a pair of sandhill cranes. Four more cranes fed on last year’s waste kernels in a cornfield and one bugled. I looked up to see a few dozen more cranes circling overhead. A song sparrow sang continuously from a shrub next to my car, and an American tree sparrow sat near it, quietly taking in all the spring sights and sounds like me.
It was hard to turn the key in the ignition and point my car away from spring again, but my son was homesick and responsibilities beckoned. As we headed north, we saw that more hawks had arrived, more geese flew overhead, and more redwings called from every wetland. The snow was still on the ground starting at Eau Claire, but when we stopped at the first rest stop north of the city, a song sparrow in full song reassured us that even if I drove the speed limit, spring was cruising right along.