ALWAYS IN SEASON: Spring brings a profusion of birds
Writing about birds is not as easy in spring as it is in winter. This seems counterintuitive, of course, but it's true. In winter, birds are scarce. Even a diligent search such as the one conducted on the Grand Forks Christmas Bird Count can turn...
Writing about birds is not as easy in spring as it is in winter. This seems counterintuitive, of course, but it's true. In winter, birds are scarce. Even a diligent search such as the one conducted on the Grand Forks Christmas Bird Count can turn up only 50 species or so. Some of those are unusual, and worth writing about.
By contrast, any day last week might have produced 50 species, given a bit of effort, and even without effort, every day seems to produce a new species.
The most casual observer, a person who doesn't seek the birds but notices only the most obvious ones -- even such a person can't miss the influx and diversity of species at this time of year.
This notion came home to me late Friday, when I stopped for gas in Manvel, N.D. A fellow approached me and asked about a hawk he'd seen. He described a "smooth, gray bird" flying low to the ground. It had a white patch on the back, just in front of the tail. This description fits one species that's common in open country around here, the northern harrier, earlier known as the marsh hawk.
Harrier is a descriptive name, but an unfamiliar one. Marsh hawk, however, exactly suits the bird. It is a denizen of open country, preferring large patches of grass, exactly the habitat provided by overgrown meadows in much of the Red River Valley.
The male harrier is a handsome bird, sleek gray in color with black tips on the wings, as if the bird had been dipped in ink. The female is equally attractive, but quite different, a warm brown color - but with the distinctive patch on the rump.
The harrier is a common nesting bird where there is suitable habitat. It's active in the daytime and, since it's not a shy bird, it's easily observed.
Harriers are among the first open-country hawks to arrive in the Red River Valley, so it's no surprise that they would attract attention.
They're not the only hawks showing up, however. Red-tailed hawks are back. So are American kestrels. Neither of these is likely to be confused with the harrier. Kestrels habitually perch on sign posts and highline wires. They're small, active birds, capable of treading air, unlike most other hawks. Red tails are much larger. Usually, their signature red tail serves to identify them, although there are complicated plumage variations. These are worth studying -- though describing them would take more space than a newspaper column -- because this is the most common hawk around here.
This assertion applies only to open country. The red-tailed hawk is an "edge species" favoring the intersection of woodland and field that characterizes the Red River Valley. The red tail is a common nesting species in mature shelterbelts.
In Grand Forks itself, a couple of other raptors are more common. Cooper's hawks have become well-established in the city. A pair of peregrine falcons is incubating eggs on the UND campus.
Any of these would be remarkable were they to show up in midwinter. In spring, any of them would be candidates for "bird of the week."
They'd have competition, though.
Each morning last week, I counted marbled godwits along County Road 33, my usual route to work. The godwit seems out of place in the grasslands because it resembles a shorebird, complete with long legs, long beak and probing eating habits.
It's only one of the surprising species that shows up here, however. Gulls are common, too, even though they are associated with seacoasts. During the week, more than 1,000 ring-billed gulls spread out across newly tilled fields northwest of Grand Forks.
The gulls, the godwits, any of the hawks, might have been "bird of the week" in the lean winter season.
None of them occur here in winter, however, and in spring, competition for the title is much more intense.
For me, the week's winner is none of the above. Instead -- for me -- the bird of the wing is the song sparrow, a welcome returnee in my backyard, where it appeared last week --providing song and entertainment.
Mike Jacobs is publisher of the Herald.