Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Voice of Spring

Winter is lingering, but the birds don’t seem to have noticed.

I spotted my first ruby-crowned kinglet in the backyard last Friday afternoon. This cute bird, smaller than a chickadee, flits short distances from branch to branch nervously, making it easy to identify even at long range, especially at this time of year, when the leaves aren’t out and few birds of that size have returned north. (In fact, no other passerine is quite that small.)

The kinglet’s pale green coloring can look gray under overcast skies. If you spot one, grab your binoculars, because this bird is lovely to see, with its tiny beak, broken eye ring, roundish butter-ball shape, and subtle green shading.

You’re not likely to see the bird’s bright scarlet crown patch, but when the male is courting, it can expand to the size of a fingernail. At such times you might also hear its inordinately long, loud, and melodious song.

The fox sparrows, too, have returned. I see them rooting around in the leaves under the bedroom window, where they’re far outnumbered by the juncos migrating north.

On Saturday we headed south along the Mississippi. Stopping at the wayside near Prescott, we spied two loons out on Lake St. Croix, and a few hooded mergansers and scaup close under the bridge. Three eagles sat on the ice and an osprey flapped doggedly into the wind as it crossed the highway.

At Mercort Mill Park downtown we came upon a peregrine falcon hiding in the shadows at the top of the lift-bridge, then streaking out to chase down passing birds. Several large flocks of swans passed high overhead, juggling and reassembling their V-formations as they went.

We pulled off the highway in Diamond Bluff and came upon a phoebe and a fox sparrow. Out on the open patches of the river hooded and common mergansers were milling around, and we spotted three shovelers amid the coots at the riverside park in Hager City.

Yes, floods of migrants are coming north, trying to sort themselves out and find mates along the way. At a high-perched overlook north of Pepin we looked out at vast sheets of floating ice dotted with gulls. The sound of squawking filled the air. 

Right now, it’s the voice of spring.

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