Sunday, February 24, 2008

Signs of Spring

Author's note: I just discovered this post disappeared after originally publishing it on 24 February. I'm reposting it so it's in the archives. - Mike

Right on time, we're seeing our first signs of spring. They came this weekend not so much in the arrival of new species for the year, but in other subtle ways. First sign: the light. Since I've been trying to take more and more pictures I've really noticed how cloudy it is around here throughout the winter. It's been tough to get really snappy images, and like every other frustrated amateur photographer I blame the environmental conditions, particularly the lack of enough natural light ("if I only had a better lens!").

Good light, but cold temps: 15 degrees F. Our female
Downy Woodpecker gorged on the energy-packed suet.

So, after finishing a second cup of coffee while performing our weekly FeederWatch count I finally noticed we had cloudless and bright conditions, perfect for trying to do justice to our resident birds.

The first candidates for profiles were Dark-eyed Juncos, not surprising because no less a source than J.J. Audubon himself said, "there is not an individual in the Union who does not know the little Snow-bird." They are nothing, if not ubiquitous. They breed here, but not even close to their winter numbers. We see two dozen under our feeders, hunkering down in our butterfly bushes, and taking advantage of our brush piles. Today they provided a transitional sign: high numbers, indicating winter, but the yard was filled with their ringing trill.

A Dark-eyed Junco perched among Autumn Olive branches. One benefit
of cutting down a lot of this invasive plant: they make great brush piles!

When non-birders think of harbingers of spring, the American Robin is the one and often only bird that comes to mind. What I find interesting, and what eBird data from our area seems to show, is that except in the harshest of conditions they are usually around all winter, and can be found in pretty large numbers. Dozens at a time, sometimes hundreds at a time, some occasions you can find thousands. You don't find numbers like that during the breeding season. But it's the frequency of encounters that messes with our perceptions. In the spring-summer you can't escape their cheerful song or whinny, but you only find a few at a time. Bottom line: breeding season, they're spread out more uniformly across the landscape of the southern tier. Winter season, they're all gathered in a few select spots, some birds likely have moved farther south to escape the snow cover. Lately on our hill we've been seeing a dozen or more mixed with a flock of Cedar Waxwings. Though the waxwings didn't show this weekend, the robins "chupped" incessantly from our conifers.

One of a dozen robins that spent the day in our yard, in spite of the snow cover.

The hardy Black-capped Chickadee provided another sign of spring. As you'd expect, they're ever-present in our yard, and all winter long we are serenaded by "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" of varying intensity. You're likely to hear this call from both sexes and throughout the year. It's given by birds separated from their flock, by birds mobbing a would-be predator or other threat, by a bird that discovers a new food source, even as an "all-clear" signal after a predator departs.

This weekend we started hearing a constant "fee-bee" from all directions. These calls are most often given by males, and most commonly in spring and summer. Among other things, these calls serve to advertise territories and repel rivals - clearly a sign of spring. [Aside: why do some use "fee-bee" as a onomatopoetic device for chickadees, I thought it was "see saw"? I would think that would be relegated to a name-sayer like the Eastern Phoebe. Or is that too logical?]

One of dozens of chickadees staking out territories in our neighborhood.

Later in the afternoon a rafter of Wild Turkeys descended on our feeding station. Yes, this too does constitute a sign of spring for us. Turkeys are non-migratory, and we do see them throughout the year in fits-and-starts, but over the past few years we've noticed they only arrive with regularity in late February. Not sure what it coincides with, perhaps they've finally exhausted food sources elsewhere. Maybe they have some weird walking-migration route (a smaller version of the migration of the Porcupine Caribou herd, for instance). Whatever drives it, it seems to hold year after year. [Except now that I've jinxed it, we'll see them all year except next February and March.]

Two-dozen turkeys feasting on what the jays threw down. They
may be the best squirrel-restricting device I've ever seen!

Reina and I went exploring, unfortunately flushing the turkeys which had gathered around a small opening along the edge of the ice-covered pond. I think flying turkeys are about as close as we can get to experiencing the skies from the late Jurassic period: they look prehistoric when launching themselves in the air.

You can see a couple of the slow-to-flush turkeys in this
hastily grabbed shot. Click the image for a larger version.

We did stroll through the woods, briefly, but spent most of our time playing on the frozen-over pond. We checked out the nest box we erected last November, which I'm happy to report is still standing (I don't have a great track record with handyman skills, never did well in shop class). We're hoping a Wood Duck or Hooded Merganser will take up residence, as both species do investigate our pond come April. Obviously, it won't be so easy to check once the ice melts. Good thing for any species that moves in!

Reina checks the nest box, a view we'll only enjoy for a couple more weeks.

And here is a final bit of evidence that spring is encroaching: a singing Northern Cardinal staking out his territory. This male flew tree top to tree top, firmly announcing his worth and his intentions with scarcely a pause, additional birds were counter-singing from other areas. Spring is certainly in our air!

16 seconds of cardinal song, with lots more to come. This may be old
news for you more-southerly bird watchers, but it's new for us this year.


The Zen Birdfeeder said...

Fun post and cool pix! Love the one of your daughter looking down on the wood duck box. Hopefully it'll be occupied this nesting season.

mon@rch said...

I just love this time of the year with all the great signs of spring! Although, even with a better lens . . . you still need light! Ugg

noflickster said...

- ZenBirdfeeder - thanks! Having a big box that she could reach was a great experience, she told us later that she's excited to help get the chickadee/wren boxes cleaned up.

- mon@arch - it was amazing how quickly spring-like quality seemed to erupt all at once, I'm anticipating our Red-winged Blackbirds sometime in the next week. Camera-wise, I figure when I quit blaming the equipment and the conditions I'll buckle down and learn what I'm doing!

Thanks for dropping by!
- Mike

slybird said...

Ah, good post. I love this time of year, especially the thaw days.

noflickster said...

slybird - And now for something completely different - up to three inches of snow! This time of year is interesting, for sure. This morning our yard was quiet, Winter reclaiming Spring's progress. Hard to imagine a Red-wing at our feeders now, but who knows what next week will bring?


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