Speaking of Nature: Spring has pressed the button
Bill Danielson photo
A gorgeous common grackle seems to spring from the leaf litter like a wildflower.
Bill Danielson photo
A killdeer contemplates its next move among the green shoots of new grass in a freshly-melted field
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, this is it. We stand on the precipice of time and look out into the vast expanse of the future with optimism and the hint of a smile on our collective faces, for we know that the moment has come. The tilted axis of the Earth is bringing the Northern Hemisphere around to face the sun — the coiled spring that provides energy to the clockwork timing of the changing of the seasons. Spring has pressed the button and the stopwatch is running.
After the adventure we’ve been through with winter at the wheel, I think we’re all a little giddy with excitement. Spring definitely benefits from winter’s reputation, but that’s the way it is with the seasons. We’re always happy to see a new sister arrive and often impatient to see our current guest go. Well, so be it! Thanks for coming winter. Don’t forget your coat. We’ll call you.
So let’s see what sort of choreography we can expect from the coming season. Already we can hear certain members of the orchestra warming up in the pit. The cardinals have been singing for a couple weeks, but the big development in my yard is the appearance of a large mixed flock of blackbirds. They have the air buzzing with their songs and I find the energy to be contagious.
Another big milestone was the sound of Canada geese calling as they took their first tentative exploratory flights into the countryside. Those of you who live near the Connecticut River may have heard Canada geese throughout the winter, but those of us who live up in the hill towns will be happy to hear those voices that have been gone for so long.
Then, of course, there is the arrival of the killdeer. Based on a quick review of my personal sighting records, this seems to be an event with the most variable timing. In 2009, the killdeer arrived on March 15. In 2010, I didn’t notice one until April 5 In 2011, they had been spotted as early as March 6. In 2012, the winter without a winter, they weren’t spotted until March 27, while they were seen on March 10 last year. I think I saw one just a few days ago. Have any of you had confirmed sightings this year?
A migrant with a much tighter schedule is the tree swallow. Over the past five years, they have arrived during a much narrower window that makes me wonder exactly how they manage their schedules. Starting in 2009 and moving through 2013, their arrival dates have been April 4, April 2, April 9, April 6 and April 6. Based on this pattern, there is a very good chance that we will see tree swallows in our area sometime next week.
And, of course, there are the phoebes. Their arrival is one of those special events that really signifies the change of season for me. They are almost as predictable as the tree swallows, but perhaps a bit more whimsical in their timing. Over the past five years their arrival dates have been on April 14, April 2, April 15, April 6 and April 8. Given the weather we’ve had this year, I wouldn’t be too surprised if they delayed just a bit, but I learned long ago that birds seldom take my council to heart.
Once the tree swallows and phoebes are both settled in, the floodgates seem to open. Towhees and flickers, green herons and chipping sparrows, thrashers and warblers and field sparrows all settle into their chairs in the orchestra. April is the month when nature’s volume is turned up!
And how wonderful it will be to walk outside in the early morning and discover that the world is already awake. Winter can be a beautiful time of year, but it is also a lonely time. There are times during early winter mornings when it is easy to imagine that you are the only person in the whole wide world who has unwisely abandoned the warmth of your covers.
In spring, however, the effect is one of excitement and camaraderie. “Where have you been?” the voices seem to say. “We waited and waited, but finally started without you!” It’s exciting to get up and it becomes increasingly painful to have to enter our places of work. Who would be happy about being forced to ignore a party to which we receive an invitation every morning?
But let’s not forget where we live. New England is famous for surprises and there is a very good chance that we will get more snow. It’s been a cold, snowy winter and I get the feeling that it might not be over as soon as some of us may like. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen miserable-looking killdeer standing in the snow and giving off a “didn’t they get my reservation?” sort of vibe.
So take heart and brace yourself for the ensuing excitement. The tree swallows will signify the breeching of a great seasonal dam and the phoebes will signify the release of a tremendous avian flood that will wash over and reinvigorate us all. For my part, I am standing below the dam with arms akimbo just waiting. Let me have it!
While I wait, I’ll take this opportunity to update you on the progress of my pigeon project. As some of you might remember, I started a little research project that involved the capture and banding of a flock of pigeons that had been visiting my feeders. I thought it was quite peculiar to have such a large and faithful flock of “city” birds so far out in the country and I wanted to know if they were an isolated group that stayed close to home.
So I purchased a pigeon trap online and I found a place that supplies bands for pigeon racers and I started banding. I captured my first bird on Oct. 26 and my last bird on Nov. 9. Then, with a change in the weather, the pigeons seemed to disperse. I’m also fairly confident that they were displeased with the trapping.
I went almost a whole month without seeing a banded bird. In fact, there were times when I didn’t see any pigeons at all. But then, on Nov. 30, I managed to spot a banded bird on the roof of my neighbor’s house. I couldn’t read the number at that range, but I knew that at least one pigeon was willing to come back for food.
On Dec. 7, I was finally able to read the number on a band. It was yellow-4, a bird that I have seen on and off all throughout the winter. Then, last week, I finally spotted a different bird, yellow-9. The maximum number of pigeons I ever saw at one time was something around 24, but the winter flocks seem to top out at roughly 12. With nine banded birds, I would expect most birds in attendance to be marked, but the opposite is true.
So, it seems that the flock is a dynamic subset of volunteers from a much larger population. It is quite likely that there are birds in this group that have been coming since last summer, but were never banded. They, along with Y4 and Y9, must surely be showing the others the way to the food. I wonder if any of the other banded birds will return when the weather warms up?
So, be of good cheer and keep your eyes and ears peeled. Next week is a kids’ column, so I won’t be able to bend your ear again until April 10 when I start my celebration of ducks. I’ve got a lot of new photos to share with you along with some new species to introduce and I’m really looking forward to it. In the meantime, be sure to keep me posted of any new arrivals in your backyard.
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com