Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Early Spring Arrivals Brave the Challenging Weather
March 7, 2009
By Steve Grinley
The rollercoaster weather that we have been experiencing for the past several weeks gives us both the hope for Spring and, also, the reminder of winter’s grip still upon us. Doug Chickering of Groveland shares his views of Mother Nature’s effects this past month:
“I know that I am being too optimistic but today Lois Cooper and I encountered a few signs of spring nested here in the midst of winter. The day was warm, the air moist and the snow soft and melting. This morning we had two Red-winged Blackbirds at the feeder and this afternoon much to our surprise there were two trees filled with Red-wings, a score or so, accompanied by a few Cowbirds.
“Also today we visited Salisbury State Reservation and came upon a group of six Red-breasted Mergansers at the near edge of the Merrimac – one female and five males. She was apparently a very desirable lady because the males were locked in a courtship display struggle that was impressive. At least Lois and I were impressed: the female seemed completely oblivious to their efforts. In my humble opinion the Red-breasted Merganser has one of the most graceful and beautiful courtship dances of all. They start with a nod then stretch their heads upward and outward; the feathers on their crowns bristling in stark display, and then bow down and end by pushing their heads parallel to the surface of the water. The Mergansers we observed were not tentative, but were going through their courtship with a serious ardor; sometimes coordinating their bows and stretches simultaneously in a perfectly choreographed sequence. With their plumage in sharp new spring condition they set the tone.
“Their dance and the tenor of the day carried the whiff of spring; something that in this year of harsh times and hard weather was extremely welcome. I am sure I am pushing the season. After all today had its mid winter items as well; the Crossbills remain at Salisbury, numerous and active, and we had a brace of Common Redpolls at the feeder. The weatherman warns of a return to deep winter and I am sure there are some disheartening storms just over the horizon. Yet it was still glorious and energizing to encounter an interlude of counterfeit spring and hope for the final trailing edge of winter. It has in balance been a good year but a long and punishing season.”
Though Doug wrote this a few weeks ago, the pattern still continues. I can step out of the store and hear redwings singing in the marsh reeds across the Traffic Circle, despite snow and ice that still covers the marsh. Song sparrows are now continually singing near the feeders, fueling the desire for spring. Yet, not long ago, I received a call from a Newburyport resident who encountered a flock of white-winged crossbills across from Fowle’s Market on High Street during her daily walk. Crossbills and snowy owls linger in Salisbury, and those olive-green goldfinches at our feeders are only hinting a bit more “spring” yellow.
Yes, the winter finches are still eating up a storm at the feeders, as are the juncos and tree sparrows. Late winter and early spring is an important time to keep feeders going. Though some of the snow and ice that covers natural food is melting, much of that natural food has already been depleted. Lingering winter birds and early spring arrivals have a tougher time finding food this time of year – maybe more than any other. A feeder full of seed or suet helps them survive these drastic climate changes.
The returning redwings and grackles are starting to “invade” area feeders. During March, more blackbirds will arrive and, although many welcome these birds to their feeders, others don’t appreciate these visitors as much. Grackles seem to be viewed as “gluttons” at the feeders and generate more complaints than squirrels from customers this time of year. Unfortunately, grackles eat all kinds of bird seed, but there are a few effective feeders that keep them at bay while allowing smaller birds to feed. The most effective feeders are those with no perches, or perches too short for the grackles Other feeders have weight-sensitive perches that don’t allow heavier grackles to feed, and others have “cages” around them that allow small birds in but discourage larger birds.
We are still six to eight weeks away from our first hummingbirds and orioles of the season, but there are still sparks of spring around us. The first woodcock of the season have been seen, and heard “peenting “ on Plum Island. We saw one huddled in the snow about ten feet from the Refuge road last Sunday. Maybe this weekend’s warmer weather will continue to melt the snow and ice, and encourage more harbingers of spring to arrive.
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