Archive for March, 2009

March Migrants

With crocuses blooming and tulips on the way, the sporadic birdsong of late winter has given way to a lusty racket. Handsome and Hot Lips (my cardinal neighbors) have become especially focused in a very particular patch of thicket behind the house, crows are flying over the garden carrying twigs in their bills, titmice are singing “Peter, Peter, Peter,” and last night the vernal peeps sang for the first time. Only a handful of them, but still . . . PEEPS!

When it comes to spring, peeps (meaning the froggy kind) are like the dot on the exclamation point for me. But for weeks the signs have been piling up—bulbs poking through the melting snow, more frequent mild spells between cold and dirty weather, and most of all, the return of certain birds, each of them another milestone on the season’s progress.

Invariably the first of these early arrivals are the Red-winged Blackbirds. Walking the beach in the first weeks of March I’ll catch their familiar hubbub behind the berm and climb up to find them in the reeds and rushes at the back of the salt marsh. The smaller streaked females arrive a few days later, and as the ground and water thaws, insects emerge and the reeds and rushes come alive, well before the appearance of anything green. The aggressive males stake their claims in a loose and crazy colony, each trying to attract a harem of females with a flash of scarlet epaulets and a hearty “konk-a-reee…


A week or so behind the Red-wings come the Common Grackles, which can make the most incredible racket, like a cacaphony of creaking metal instruments, totally unmusical but altogether alive. Sometimes when you look for where it’s all coming from there isn’t a single bird in sight! A whole flock can sit deep in the trees and thickets with their long keeled tails, cackling and “readle-leaking” away while adding a bizarre peristaltic motion to their noisemaking. If you had a mute button it might look as if they were trying to throw up. Then of a sudden they can burst out from nowhere in a rush of dark wings, leaving a pall of utter silence behind them. Roaming a lawn or climbing out from cover onto an open tree limb, their fresh plumage with all its iridescent subtlety plays wonderful tricks with the light.


Killdeer are the first of the shorebird migrants in these parts, arriving on the salt marshes, beaches, lawns, parking lots—just about any open ground. You can always tell them by their long legs and double bars across the breast if you see one running about, by ear as they loudly call their name, or in flight by their bright rufousy rump. They belong to the Plover family and are famous for their broken-wing act to persuade predators away from eggs or chicks. They scurry on foot quickly, stop, bob their heads, then scurry on again foraging for insects, worms, and other invertebrate morsels.


At this time of year on the New England coast, above-freezing sea temps moderate the climate enough that the marshes, creeks, and ponds just inshore are the first to thaw. Waders begin arriving along the coastal wetlands, holding back for more favorable ice-free conditions before moving on to inland habitat and rookeries. The Great Blue is typically the first of the herons to arrive. Snow doesn’t daunt them much so long as there’s small fish to be stalked and speared. At this time of year the adults are freshly plumed.


Often as not, Snowy or Great Egrets are only a few days behind. These 3 Snowy Egrets are looking a bit forlorn and out of place in the cold winds of late March fetching across the Hampton/Seabrook salt marshes.


Hooded Mergansers are also backing up in the ice-free zone, waiting for ponds and lakes to thaw. They aren’t that difficult to find at this time of year if you know where to look. But it’s a short window of opportunity, once the ice is gone, so go the Hoodies, and that’ll likely be the last I see of any until same time next year. Hooded Mergs are fresh-water diving ducks with long thin serrated bills used to catch small fish, frogs, snails, and other underwater treats. Here’s a pair in a small pond spilling into a tidal creek in York just as the ice was breaking up last week, the male’s crest is relaxed as he scouts underwater for snack.


But the approach of an unpaired male gets everyone excited. With a competition underway, both males’ crested hoods extend to the fullest as they strut and parade before the female looking on.


Then both males throw their heads back, bobbing enthusiastically while emitting odd duckish croaks, and the excited female adds her crest to the drama. The males are so comical and doll-like with their perfect Pomeranian headdresses one can’t help but want to squeeze them.


Everywhere boys are chasing girls, and doing the strangest things to get their attention. Take the antics of the male American Woodcock (a.k.a. the Timberdoodle) I witnessed the other evening for example (sorry, no photos). Woodcock are so well camouflaged and shy, you almost never see one up close by day, and if you do it’s because it exploded out from under your feet to avoid being trod upon. Even then it’s gone in a blur and whistle of wings before you’ve had a moment to recover your wits. On the other hand, it’s not too hard to find and watch the Timberdoodles dance in the spring twilight.

After sunset or before sunrise just listen for their peculiar calls near a field or open wet area with woods nearby. It’s a loud and penetrating “peent” repeated a few times a minute. The call is buzzy and nasal, and carries for some distance. That’ll be a male sitting or walking around some wet grassy spot near the edge of the woods or in a field, you might even spot his silhouette in the dusk against a patch of snow.

When the “peents” stop, listen for the loud whistling twitter his wings make as he launches into the dance. Once he’s airborn you can move a little closer to where he sprang from, but stay still when he’s on the ground or he’ll spook easily. If there’s still some light and you’re close enough, you’ll see a chunky shape climb into the twilit starting in a wide spiral, tightening as he climbs 2-300 feet until he vanishes among the celestial bodies, but his wings will be twittering all the way.

As he reaches the zenith he starts chirping and burbling enthusiastically and then the chirps become intermittent, like gasps, almost desperate. Imagine C3PO, the squat little robot from Star Wars, with a frantic case of the hiccups to get an idea of the sound effect—there’s nothing else on Earth like it. He’s plunging downward in a zig-zag fashion to land back where he started, and beginning the cycle all over again—each dance taking just a few minutes with more restful periods of “peenting” in between. Woodcock migrate in a staggered fashion throughout the spring, so if you haven’t heard them yet, there’s still plenty of time to catch them dancing with the stars.


Snowy Reprise

Earlier this month I happened to come across a Snowy Owl at the far end of Salisbury Beach State Reservation, and while it kept a wary eye on me, I crept closer and closer for a few snaps.


Then something caught its attention over the water behind, and swiveling its head I saws that distinct red Sharpie mark which told me this is one of Norm Smith’s transplanted birds, possibly relocated up here from Logan Airport away from the busy runways.


This definitely isn’t the same bird we released nearby at Plum Island  back in January, it’s smaller and much whiter if you compare the two, so possibly a mature male. Moments later, greedy for close-ups, I took one step to many and he took off across the river for the peace and quiet of the wide open marshes.