For the Birds Radio Program: Spring along Interstate 65

Original Air Date: March 15, 2011

Laura drove down to Kentucky seeing signs of spring, but when she left, it was snowing down there and she was driving back into winter.

Duration: 4′08″


Last week I drove to and from Kentucky, and saw firsthand just how slowly spring is advancing this year. It was quite wintry as I drove through Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Driving through Chicago and nearby northern Indiana, I saw plenty of robins and red-wings, but as soon as I turned south, away from the softening effects of Lake Michigan, birds pretty much disappeared from the frozen landscape. A few small flocks of Canada Geese fed on corn stubble in some spots, a few small flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds sat in the vegetation along the road-side ditches, and I saw one flock of about 20 robins fly over Highway 65, but otherwise the northern half of Indiana seemed to be stuck in winter mode. And the southern half of the state wasn’t much further along. I did see a handful of robins at the rest stops I visited, but they were all males as is typical of winter flocks in the northern parts of their range, and none were singing.

I spent a night in Indianapolis and got to take a couple of walks in a lovely neighborhood. There were quite a few robins feeding on lawns, but they were all males and seemed to be in migration rather than territorial mode. I heard only one singing, and he didn’t seem very hormonal yet. It was fun listening to singing Carolina Chickadees, but like our Black-capped Chickadees, they sing in winter, so that wasn’t much use in terms of signs of spring.

Robin, goose, and Red-wing migrations are all influenced by weather patterns as well as increasing daylength. Major robin and Canada Goose movements follow the 37-degree isotherm—the squiggly line one might see on a weather map corresponding to where the average daytime/nighttime temperature is 37. Driving through Indiana, the temperature stayed at 34 well into the afternoon, with overcast skies and a cold mist hovering in the air. The ice and snow on the fields made it apparent that the temperature hadn’t been much above freezing in recent days.

I was supposed to go on a field trip in Louisville, Kentucky, when I was down there, but it was pouring rain. That seemed springlike despite the fact that no robins were singing, but by the next day it was snowing in Hebron, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.

Driving toward home, I was headed into more snow and ice. I made a stop at Goose Pond, a lovely prairie area in Columbia County, which is managed by Madison Audubon Society. Most years in the past decade, the ponds have been at least partially open by this time in March, and teeming with ducks, geese, and swans. This time the ponds were still completely frozen and snow covered. A pair of Northern Harriers flew above the snowy fields, but there was no sign of the Red-winged Blackbirds and robins I hoped to see. And I was headed 300 miles further north—every mile bringing me that much further from spring, wherever it was.

Winter may be lingering, but eventually the 37 degree will work its way up to the north woods. And maybe those robin songs will be all the more beautiful for having waited so long for them.