Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Horseheads Marsh

My commute takes me by a small stretch of wetland known variably has the Holding Point, the Center at Horseheads, or quite simply, as the Horseheads Marsh. I often stop on my way home for a quick, 15-20 minute "point count," though not during the winter months. For starters, it's often simply too cold, it's typically dark when I'm passing the marsh, and even if it were light, diversity is pretty low. The water is usually frozen, so waterfowl are out; there may be sparrows hunkered down in the brushy areas, but again, it's dark and the stops are short.

Horseheads MarshView of the marsh from "the Hump." © Mike Powers 2007

But in mid- to late-March the water opens up and I find myself driving by in the light. This little marsh becomes a much-needed stop, especially at the end of a day spent staring at a computer screen. "The Hump," a raised area that overlooks four pools and lots of cattails, is a perfect spot to park the scope, get out the notebook, and watch/listen for what's around.

Red-winged BlackbirdMale Red-winged Blackbird. © Mike Powers 2007

The blackbirds have reclaimed the marsh, virtually every third cattail serves as a perch for a male claiming a territory. Another much welcome sign of spring!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Mixed Messages

It's not unusual to get snow in mid- or even late-March in the Southern Tier of New York, so it wasn't really a big deal for us. Not even the driving. In fact, after a week or more of spring-like weather we enjoyed another weekend of sledding, drinking cocoa by the fire, and watching the birds scramble below the feeder. Winter, clearly, was not going gently into the good night of spring.

Fox Sparrows and Dark-eyed JuncoFox Sparrows and Dark-eyed Junco. © Mike Powers 2007

But the cold and snow sure was a big deal to the birds, more specifically, the ones at our feeder. Goose migration is in full swing. The last couple of weeks brought huge skiens of Canadas with smaller skiens of Snows mixed in. Blackbirds are starting to populate the Horseheads Marsh, which is just starting to show open water after months of ice cover. Reports of returning sparrows are hitting the listserves, though nothing has appeared in our yard. These are all harbingers of spring, balmy days should be imminent. April showers would be bringing May flowers, and following on the heels of these early migrants would be warblers, thrushes, orioles, tanagers, hummingbirds, and flycatchers. You could almost hear the dawn chorus reaching us on the warm, southern winds.

Then the weather teased for us, halting any plans of putting up the skiis and putting screens on the windows, and took the birds by surprise. The snow started Friday afternoon, and with it came the Fox Sparrows. Saturday morning we had seven Fox Sparrows under our feeders.

Fox SparrowFox Sparrow in Butterfly Bush. © Mike Powers 2007

Their arrival is a little early, based on my records for our yard. Usually they appear sometime during the last week of March, though they're certainly in the region by now. And when I finally find them on our hill I have to go find them, the one or two who make themselves known, by visiting the brushy patches and sifting through the more common sparrows and finches. But the snow brought them in droves to where I could shoot some photos from the comfort of inside the house, and watch for hours as they used both feet to scour for seeds underneath the snow.

They'll be on their way soon enough, gone by mid-April, but we're glad to host them while they visit.
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