Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Signs of Spring in February
February 24, 2018
By Steve Grinley

     Spring is here! Well, not quite. But the early signs are there – especially if you observe the birds. Flocks of red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, and brown-headed cowbirds are arriving already and, although some may think they are early this year, they are right on time. 

     Flocks of blackbirds always arrive in mid to late February, and we almost always have snow after their first arrival. It still seems strange to hear the “konker-ree” of redwings singing on territory in the marshes while snow coats the grasses that aren’t even green yet. And with the arrival of grackles, the complaints of them overtaking the bird feeders will soon surpass the complaints about squirrels.

     A few other early spring migrants have made their way to Essex County this past week as well. Tom Wetmore watched a woodcock fly in off the ocean at Lot 1 on Plum Island and land on a nearby sand dune! Woodcock have been reported elsewhere in the county and into New Hampshire as well. 

     We saw a couple of turkey vultures during the Eagle Festival in Newburyport last Saturday and I saw a kettle of five vultures circling over downtown Essex on Monday. The first killdeer have arrived to area fields. Chickadees and titmice are singing their spring songs and one customer told me that bluebirds were already checking out last year’s nesting box! 

     We watched goldeneye and bufflehead courtship displays at Cashman Park during my bird walk last Sunday. They were throwing their heads back and forth, trying to impress their potential mates. Pairs of red-tailed hawks were soaring together, perhaps beginning their early spring courtship. Further up the Merrimack River, eagles were reportedly bringing sticks to their nest already.

     Despite these hints of spring, we still have New England weather reminding us that winter is not over. The number of wintering eagles still in the area, as well as wintering ducks and loons, remind us that the lakes and rivers up north are likely still frozen. Along with the courting ducks at Cashman Park, we saw a wintering red-throated loon there, and a wintering common loon was further up river. A half dozen common loons were in the ocean off the Salisbury Jetty later in the day along with a continuing large flock of common eider. We had good looks at surf scoters still on the ocean while a pair of wintering thick-billed murres was swimming together closer to shore.

     Also at the Salisbury Beach State Reservation, a flock of snow buntings flew by us as we watched three adults and one immature bald eagle in the marsh. Two of the adult eagles were tussling with each other – likely a territorial dispute. A male harrier (also referred to as a gray ghost) and two female harriers were also hunting the marsh that afternoon. 

     Further evidence of winter lingering was a dark-morphed rough-legged hawk perched on a small island in the middle of the marsh. And, if there was doubt that winter was still with us, a snowy owl was perched more than half way out of the Salisbury Jetty. 

     Still, we have witnessed snowy owls and other wintering raptors lingering into May, so I am optimistic for spring. I choose to dwell on the chickadee’s new song and the house-hunting bluebirds, and the other promising signs that spring will arrive. It always does.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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