Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
First Spring Arrivals Are Upon Us
February 29, 2020
By Steve Grinley
I think that Punxsutawney Phil got this one right. Yes, we know that March snow is not rare for Massachusetts. But the longer days and significantly warmer than normal February that we had is bringing Spring early this year. And the birds are responding.
We saw out first red-winged blackbirds and grackles of the year more than a week ago and a small flock of cowbirds mixed with starlings the first week of February. This past week, I have noticed redwings and grackle flyovers on my way to work. We have had many customers mention that the blackbirds have started to show up at feeders. Though many folks think it is early, the return of the blackbirds is pretty much on schedule with their February arrival. Soon grackles will be overtaking some feeders, so you may want to dig out your grackle-resistant feeders now before the larger numbers arrive.
There have been reports of the season’s first woodcock on Plum Island and in a few other locations. Even a few male goldfinches are starting to show some yellow in the face and throat. Customers have told me that their crocus have already started to bloom due to the warmer weather. These are signs of spring and, despite the chance for late season snow, it will be here soon.
We were certainly surprised to see our first killdeer of the season at the Salt Pannes on Plum Island this past Monday. This was one of the earliest dates that I have seen killdeer in Essex County. Two killdeer were seen there on Tuesday.
For the faithful readers of this column, you may remember that it is not the first redwing or woodcock that herald spring for fellow birder Doug Chickering of Newburyport. His spring harbinger is the killdeer. More reliable than the groundhog that doesn’t see his shadow, when Doug sees his first killdeer of the season, he can be sure that spring is at hand. Doug describes one of those moments that occurred some years ago at the end of a winter not dissimilar to this year:
“We bird both by eye and by ear; and occasionally the two are not directly coordinated. This can lead to a nice thrilling moment. Today I had my scope set up at the platform at Emerson Rocks on Plum Island and was scanning the area. The rocks themselves were slowly slipping below the rising tide and I had hoped to find a Purple Sandpiper or two.
“It was warm and nearly windless this late morning. It was also a strange weather day. There were passing holes in the cloud cover creating occasional splashes of sunlight mixed with intermittent light rain. As I picked over the rocks I was only vaguely aware of the bird sounds around me. Then a sound intruded into my consciousness; a lone careening cry. Somewhere deep in my memory it sounded like– well– like a Killdeer.
“I stood up from my scope and began to search the skies in front of me. The sound seemed to come from the ocean. Could it have been some anomalous gull cry? After a few minutes of silence I returned to the birds in front of me. No shore birds among the rocks so I started to pick through the many clusters of various sea birds. Eider, Oldsquaw, White-winged Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser, a few Goldeneye, a scattering of Horned Grebes and then… that sound again.
“This time a single high cry to my right. It repeated. And then I saw the form among the driftwood on the sands. A Killdeer, no doubt. It stood on the beach, facing out to the sea emitting an occasional single plaintive Killdeer cry. Was it calling to a friend or calling out in triumph of having successfully made the journey? When Tom Wetmore arrived I got him on it and he was a surprised as I. We watched and speculated until it took flight and headed inland.
“It wasn’t much of a winter. Sure there were all those Snowy Owls. Lots of Razorbills and Kittiwakes a fairly reliable Rough-legged Hawk and that characteristically unreliable Northern Shrike. But it was a winter of no snow, no real freeze-ups; devoid of winter finches. It has been a winter where ducks who should have long ago made good their escape from frozen ponds and blizzards, hung around as if they knew that what freezes did occur wouldn’t last long. I had Redheads today. And now this. A Killdeer which I consider to be the first bird of spring.
“I look for this bird in the first two weeks of March and really expect to see it around the spring equinox. I have never had it in February. A Killdeer at the technical last quarter of winter is not that surprising for Nantucket or Chatham, but Essex County? I don’t know whether to be thrilled or appalled. Is this the beginning of spring or the end of the world?”