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Northland Nature: Looking for the very early migrants

An early migrant – a male red-winged blackbird – sings in a swamp. Photo by Larry Weber

By the end of March, after the vernal equinox, the hours of daylight are greater than that of darkness — first time since last September, and getting longer each day.

Even when the last weeks of this month may be reluctant to give up its snow, we still see some changes due to the more sunlight. Even a cold March will occasionally give us a few warm days.

And we see other happening, too. Tree buds of willows, aspen and silver maple are starting to open. Dandelions and maybe crocuses bloom in sunny sites; normally on the south and west sides of buildings or hillsides. Some of us have seen risen chipmunks by this time and may have smelled the activity of a skunk.

But for many of us seeking spring, it is birds — the early migrants that are most sought after and provide the greatest discoveries.

The snowpack may still be rather thick in the woods or off the trails, but I often notice a few of the very early arrivals along the roadsides. Here, the field birds of horned larks and snow bunting search for seed meals often in the plowed edges of the roads. While the latter are white and easy to see when they fly up, the former are more brown and hard to locate.

Juncos, a type of sparrow, are frequently in flocks here, too, but these gray birds with the white tail feathers will often come to our yards and feeders as well. Looking out now at the feeders, we see more than just the regulars that wintered with us.

In addition to the juncos, there may also be purple finches (sort of a "red-headed sparrow") feeding on the seeds. Other finches might include goldfinches, pine siskins and there could be some north-bound tree sparrows.

Along our roadways, it is now not unusual to see a couple of raptors as they hunt for small mammal prey. Red-tailed hawks perch as northern harriers are more likely to fly in their hunting. Migrating bald eagles may be seeking roadkill. If there is any open water in the regional rivers or lake edges, a few Canada geese and trumpeter swans could be seen as they rest.

But three types of songbirds get me out each day to locate: robins, grackles and red-winged blackbirds.

Though a number of robins do spend the entire winter in the Northland, there are many more that keep going to states south of us. Temperatures rising into the 30s and 40s regularly, along with the longer days, will send these migrants north again to seek home sites.

A similar story is with the grackles and red-winged blackbirds. Grackles are a type of large blackbird with a complete dark coat. Sunlit feathers, especially near the head, can cause an iridescence of purple-green to appear. I usually see the early grackles in towns and cities often among spruce trees.

The red-winged blackbird is a resident of the swamps and wetlands. My morning walks take me by such a swamp. Each day in the last weeks of March, I pause to see or hear this newly arrived migrant. Birds are quick to return to their home territory swamps, used last year, and immediately begin the proclamations of ownership. Their "conk-a-lee" song is a rite of passage each spring.

For each of these three songbirds, individuals arrive before the bigger flocks do, and males before females. The first robins, grackles and red-winged blackbirds are anticipated and are true harbingers of the coming spring.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.