Happy First Day of Spring, otherwise known as the Vernal Equinox, which means that the sun is directly above the equator and the hours in the day are divided equally between daylight and darkness. Here in the northland as we near the end of March, the promise of spring grows louder each day for us birders. While places further south are already seeing new growth and even flowers, we still have a good amount of snow on the ground and must depend upon our ears and what we’re hearing in the woods and skies for confirmation of the change coming.
On this official first day of spring I heard the jack hammer tattoo of a Hairy Woodpecker coming from the forest. Woodpeckers don’t have a singing voice; they can make a loud cheep sound when irritated or scared, but to court females and declare their territory they depend on their sharp, hard beaks. They will choose tree trunks that give the best resonance for broadcasting their message.
A couple days ago I heard the mournful cooing sound made by a male Mourning Dove. This is the sound of courtship
and based on the number of doves we’ve seen this winter around our bird feeders, there should be no shortage of mates.
The Black-capped Chickadees have actually been singing their songs for the past month, stimulated by the lengthening daylight and not the temperatures. This two note song is described as ‘fee bee’ – the first note high and the second lower and repeated twice. They sing it as a challenge to other males as well as enticement for the females. I like to make the sound back at them and see how long our back and forth carries on.
Another bird that is commonly found at our feeders, the Blue Jay is starting to give its spring call, which is well described as a ‘pump handle’ call. Fewer people these days may be familiar with the sound a squeaky metal pump handle makes. Some describe the sound like that of a squeaky gate. Either way you get a sense of the quality of this sound – not really music to our ears but appealing to female Blue Jays.
Higher in the skies the honking of Canada Geese and Trumpeter Swans can be heard. Both species are making their
way north even though the lakes are all still frozen and covered with snow. Streams and rivers will open up when the average temperature reaches 35F. We saw a large number of geese standing on the frozen lake in our town where it flows into a rocky stream. In fact, the rivers are starting to open in some places and this is where the waterfowl land and wait out the change to come.
Another keynote species that we are listening for is the Sandhill Crane. It’s loud, rattling, gargling bugle last several seconds and is often strung together. This can be heard up to 2.5 miles away and is given on the ground as well as in flight. Sometimes we can hear them, but not find them in the sky. They need exposed corn fields or wetlands to provide them with food. As the snow gradually melts away their calls will become more prevalent.
We know the Red-winged Blackbirds have already returned to southern portions of our state and their ‘conk-a-ree’ call is rippling over the old cattails. Soon American Robins will follow with their melodious song. All of these sounds are just the prelude to the wonderful, diverse concert of bird music we can expect in the next two months.
By Kate Crowley