April is upon us and the sounds of spring are slowly growing. At the moment our yard has seen an influx of Purple Finches and Dark-eyed Juncos. Both species are very active, eating sunflower bird seed at the feeders and on the ground, where so many seeds have been exposed by the melting snow. The Red-winged Blackbirds are back too and they like the sunflower seeds as much as the next bird. Hearing their ‘conk-a-ree’ call from the surrounding trees is guaranteed to give you an instantaneous dose of spring fever. We still haven’t seen American Robins in our yard,
A Dark-eyed Junco and a Purple Finch hang out on a spring shrub – notice the pussywillows?
though we know they are not far south of us, based on other people’s reports.
The rivers are still high here in northern Minnesota though we are not faced with the flooding as are other states and regions. But these waters are open, while the lakes remain locked in ice. Waterfowl – big and small – are making use of the rivers to rest and refuel as they continue their northward journey to their nesting territories.
The Canada geese that we are seeing flying over now are the vanguard – the risk takers. They are the ones who will be hit by late season snowstorms and freezing temperatures (and we know we will still see some of these in April), but if they can survive those few tough weeks, they will be the proverbial ‘early birds’ who not only get the worm, but the best nest sites.
Canada geese often travel in this easily seen ‘V’ formation – honking as they go.
The population of these large waterfowl in Minnesota (and many other states) has been growing exponentially in recent years. They love the perfectly groomed lawns of golf courses and suburban homes where they can graze without having to worry about predators hiding in tall grass. And they are prolific breeders. By 2 or 3 years of age a pair can begin to produce young. A pair raises, on average, about 4 young per year. At that rate, with a lifespan of potentially 10 years, a lake with 3 pairs of adult geese could multiply to nearly 50 birds within 5 years and to over 300 in just 10 years! Canada geese like many other birds, return to same area where they nested the previous year, so the ones you see on your pond or lake are probably ‘old’ friends.
The Sandhill Cranes that are returning are also in pairs. Like the geese they mate for life, which is why they are symbols of fidelity in Asian cultures. We took it as a good omen when a pair flew over us in our front field the day we were married 33 years ago. We have wondered how the species would fare this spring since the Platte River in Nebraska experienced record breaking floodwaters. This is one of their largest staging areas in North America, but apparently these ancient birds were able to adapt to the challenges, unlike so many people living near the river.
We have seen Great Blue Herons in some local wetlands and a few were seen sitting on their stick nests that are part of a rookery on the Snake River, 40 miles south of us. Again, these are very early arrivals seeking the best nest sites.
The last great waterfowl to mention are the Trumpeter Swans. Several have flown over our house. In certain light it
Trumpeter swans typically travel in pairs or three, not large flocks.
is difficult to distinguish their white bodies against the grey skies, but their long necks and shortened bodies are the best clue to their identity. They tend to be quieter than the Canada Geese when in flight, but occasionally you will hear a one or two note call that is more a trumpet than the honking of geese. It is described by some as “oh-OH”.
If you live in the northern regions of the U.S. the parade has begun, be sure you get a front row seat – whether through your living room window or from your car in a nearby nature area or Refuge.
By Kate Crowley