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ALWAYS IN SEASON/ MIKE JACOBS: A tide of birds sweeps through the valley

Illustration by Mike Jacobs1 / 2
Mike Jacobs2 / 2

It's wrong to describe the migration of birds as a parade, since a parade has a beginning and an end. The movement of birds is more like a stream that ebbs and flows as it passes a given point, bringing different species one after another in more or less regular order so that we can speak of "time for robins," for example, or "time for eagles."

Mid-March is time for eagles, for a couple of reasons, I think. One is that eagles are large birds that need a relatively long time to hatch their eggs and rear their young. Another is that the spring thaw provides a food bonanza for the birds. Bald eagles are carrion eaters, and melting snow uncovers a lot of carrion, quite a lot of it left behind by human hunters and anglers.

So, it was not a surprise that bald eagles caused a flurry in the local birding community. A pair of them were back at a nest site that's been used by eagles for several years. The question has been, will they nest again?

The Red River Valley has become a dependable place to see bald eagles. In the last several years, I've found at least three active nests within an hour's drive of Grand Forks, and there are probably others that I don't know about. It's not unusual to encounter eagles along the river, and eagles are seen often flying above the city.

Other areas to see eagles nearby are Devils Lake, where bald eagles are especially numerous in late fall, and the Missouri River Valley, where they sometimes spend the winter taking fish from open water below Garrison Dam.

The local eagles are evidence of the remarkable recovery of this iconic species, the avian emblem of the United States. The survival of eagles as a species was threatened by DDT, which accumulated in the eagle's food supply. Recovery has reached the point that eagles are no longer considered endangered.

Eagles are the largest and the easiest birds to identify in the stream of migrants passing now, but that doesn't make them the most dramatic, necessarily. That title I would give to the tide of ground-loving birds that has passed through our area in the weeks since the latest storm.

The number of snow buntings, horned larks and Lapland longspurs has been impressive, the largest in my experience. It's also been later than usual, delayed by prolonged snow cover and perhaps by windy weather. These conditions created a pent up bunch of birds driven to move north by the stronger light that triggers the nesting impulse, and when conditions improved, thousands of birds moved through.

The break in the weather also brought the first returning raptors to the Red River Valley. Northern harriers appeared as the snow cover receded, allowing them access to prey that otherwise would have been protected by snow.

So far, I've missed rough-legged hawks, Arctic breeders that usually pass through the valley by this point in spring. Perhaps they flew right on by, driven by the imperative to get to nesting grounds.

So far, I've seen no meadowlarks, though I watch for them every day, and I've heard no booming from sharp-tailed grouse. Neither of these phenomena can be too far in the future. Nor can the return of American robins, which for so many of us mark the real arrival of spring — even though robins sometimes linger here through the winter and even though their arrival is only part of the continually changing stream of birds.