For the Birds Radio Program: Early Spring Report
This time of year, right when we’re getting hungry for signs of spring, we’re also taking a bigger interest in winter birds that turn up here and there. When a Gyrfalcon turned up in the Duluth Harbor last weekend, birders gathered to add it to their March lists. And people are as much on the lookout for Bohemian Waxwings and Redpolls as they are for Song Sparrows and the first woodcock. The snow in Duluth right now, on March 14, is almost gone, and although the ground is frozen deeper than normal because we had so little snow this year, there’s still a feeling of spring in the air. Of course, when national news was talking about Lake Superior being locked in with ice, we northlanders felt like we were in an alternate universe, because our end of the lake has been mostly open all winter. I was actually listening to a radio news report about Lake Superior being entirely ice-covered while I was driving along the shore, watching the waves sparkling and dancing in the sunlight. Apparently the ice on the Great Lakes really is unusually thick east of here, but the news reports are partly based on a NASA satellite photo that shows how white the Great Lakes other than southern Lake Michigan look. But if you look carefully, you can see that at the time the photo was taken, Lake Superior was cloud covered, so ice and open water are both obscured.
Birds may not get a satellite view of ice conditions, but they do get a birds-eye view. Right now there aren’t a lot of new waterfowl about, but goldeneyes are getting romantic, and anytime you can watch them doing their spring courtship, combining the comical with the sublime in a cool little dance, jerking their heads back and scooting on the water—reports of ice-bound lakes and wintry weather are banished from our minds. Songbird migration hasn’t kicked in yet, but some hawks are on the move, circling in the sky riding on thermals. There is something beautiful and even breathtaking about a kettle of hawks floating above. Seeing them, we are filled with wonder, the way we were when we were children seeing castles in the clouds, and we wonder what the hawks are thinking of as they float above us. Are the lengthening days and changes in the sun’s angle stirring their hearts the way they stir ours? Is their impulse to migrate an adventurous wanderlust, an optimistic hope that the hunting will be better somewhere else, or merely a behavioral response to annual rhythms? Scientist and poet alike wonder as they watch this lovely spectacle.
Robins are singing in the Twin Cities right now, and while I wait impatiently for them to appear in my neck of the woods, my feeders are mostly empty, with chickadees and squirrels the order of the day. But soon the robins will make their way up here, and their caroling will intermingle with the songs of a lovely variety of sparrows, while grackles puff up and strut across our lawns and yellow-bellied sapsuckers will appear in my aspen tree, their little holes making it possible for yellow-rumped warblers and kinglets and ruby-throated hummingbirds to appear a week or two later. It’s nice to be able to take it slow and easy right now, savoring every little morsel of spring, and remembering that spring comes in its own sweet time.