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ALWAYS IN SEASON: Slowly, winter birds give way to spring species

It's tempting this week, with this weather, to write only about winter birds. Winter birds there are in plenty. The crowd of redpolls in my backyard west of Gilby, N.D., reached at least 300. They're feeding enthusiastically on oilseed sunflower ...

Tundra swan
Tundra swan over a flooded field. Illustration by Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald publisher.

It's tempting this week, with this weather, to write only about winter birds.

Winter birds there are in plenty. The crowd of redpolls in my backyard west of Gilby, N.D., reached at least 300. They're feeding enthusiastically on oilseed sunflower and thistle seed.

Redpolls nest in the scrub country in northern Canada just south of the tree line. My guess is that they'll disappear northward as soon as the snow begins to melt to the north of us.

One morning, a red-breasted nuthatch showed up, the first I've seen this season. It's possible, of course, that the nuthatch has been around all winter, and I've only seen it now because there's light and activity at the feeders before I leave for work.

Along my commuting route, there have been snowy owls. I saw two of them just at sunset on Wednesday. It's been several weeks since my last sighting of snowy owls.

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These may be northbound birds. Snowy owls are wanderers, following available prey. Mostly, they eat small rodents, which would be hidden when the landscape is covered with snow, so the owls move along, returning as stronger light melts the snow and exposes the prey.

Rough-legged hawks have been numerous in open grasslands, as well. These are Arctic nesters that move through our area in the fall, then back through the area in the spring. Some winters, a few stick around. Rough-legged hawks were here until the February snows hid the landscape, giving shelter to prey species.

All of these species will move north as the sunlight strengthens, the weather warms and the snow melts.

But there have been spring birds, too.

Some raptors are among them, including red-tailed hawks, northern harriers and American kestrels.

These are early migrants showing up as soon as the snow melts enough to expose prey species. Often, these species are seen along roadsides because snow tends to melt away from road edges before it disappears from grasslands.

Harriers hunt on the wing. Their flight is irregular, with the birds rocking from side to side. The best field marks are the white rump and the black wing tips.

Males and females differ. The males are gray, females brown.

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Both sexes have the field marks, though.

Harriers are seldom seen at rest, since they tend to roost on or very close to the ground.

Kestrels are perching birds often seen on overhead lines, power line poles, fence posts and sometimes in trees.

This is a small, colorful falcon capable of hovering in flight.

Red-tailed hawks favor exposed perches, too, often power line poles but also trees.

The reddish color of the tail gives these birds away. Perched birds also might be recognized by the streaked band across the belly.

Of course, other spring birds are present, too, including such traditional signs of spring as American robins and western meadowlarks.

In my view, though, the most spectacular of the early spring migrants are tundra swans.

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These are big, white birds with very long necks. They're noisy birds, giving a haunting call that once lent them the name "whistling swans." More recently, ornithologists have decided Eurasian and North American swans -- once named Bewick's and whistling swans, respectively -- are really a single species, tundra swan.

This is the common swan of both spring and fall. Sometimes, flocks of many thousands occur, especially in the fall. Spring flocks are generally smaller.

Northbound birds behave somewhat differently, too. Spring swans often rest in flooded fields; fall birds choose larger, deeper bodies of water.

Tundra swans -- as the name indicates -- nest north of the tree line and pretty much around the world. Most of the North American population spends the winter on the mid-Atlantic coast, favoring Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia and Albemarle and Pamlico sounds in North Carolina.

They migrate diagonally across the continent. As it happens, our area is precisely on their route.

The swans are long-distance fliers and favor the same resting areas every year. At these places, the flocks attract other birds, growing in size. This is called staging.

Northeast North Dakota is an important staging area, both in fall and spring.

Their size, their brilliant white color and their abundance place them among the most spectacular of migrating birds.

Jacobs is publisher of the Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1103; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1103; or send email to mjacobs@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: ALWAYS IN SEASONMIKE JACOBS
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