February is already behind us and the scales tip even further towards spring as we head into March. The daytime temperatures are 35-40°, but with little sunshine, which makes for a slow thaw, but a thaw nonetheless. The migrating water fowl are starting to show upon the southern Wisconsin rivers and within the week they will spread to the whole southern half of the state.
I always look forward to the first week of March and the return of the colorful migrating ducks. They are so extraordinary in their full nuptial dress and are very striking in the dark-water river. One of my favorite migrating ducks is the colorful Common Goldeneye. These beautiful diving ducks were once called “whistlers” by the old duck hunters, because of the high-pitched whistle their wings make as they fly over. They arrive in small flocks and spend their time diving under the water to find aquatic plants to eat. For now, they stay together, yet divided—males to the left and females to the right. Soon the Goldeneye males will begin their fancy courtship ritual. The males swim quickly and low in the water while throwing their heads over to their backs. They will nest much further to the north and have the habit of nesting in the cavity of a hollow tree, like a Wood duck.
A little down river, the season’s first Great Blue heron flies up from the bank where he’s been hunting the shallow waters for minnows. His six-foot wingspan carries him over the water and he lets out a single loud “Squawk!” These four-foot tall herons are hardier than most people realize and some of them may spend the winter here if there is open water and good fishing. It was good to see that the heron had returned to the river where he is often seen in the summer. Spring has definitely come for the Great Blue heron. I would ask the folks who live further north to just be patient—they’re on their way, bringing spring with them.
The first pair of Sandhill cranes was hunting together in the cattail marsh. They blend with the dried stems and leaves, and stay close to each other as they slowly stalk along. The cranes have been returning 2–3 weeks earlier the past 5–10 years. I’m not sure what these two were eating, but they were probably finding something green down by their feet. They’ll eat just about anything they can swallow, including fish, frogs, mice, voles, and baby birds.
The Canada geese have moved into southern Wisconsin and line the banks of the rivers. They enjoy frolicking in the river and snoozing on the snow-covered banks. At night they fly out to a picked cornfield and fill their chops with shell corn. When the lakes and rivers further to the north thaw, the geese will continue their spring migration. But for now they are quite content where they are.
The wild Mallard ducks are showing up in small flocks. They also spend their days searching the shallow waters for food. Unlike the Goldeneyes, the Mallard drakes and hens flock together and stay close for safety. They don’t dive for their food but rather they may tip upside down and reach what they can with their long necks. The dark, fluorescent green head of the drake Mallard is arguably the most lovely green to behold in Natures’ realm, and as always, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
It’s been a long winter for the White-tailed deer in the area. They are taking advantage of the open patches of grass in the hay fields, but they are eating both day and night. There won’t be much of anything green and fresh to eat for nearly two months yet, and until then the deer are in danger of starving if bad weather persists. Some of the yearlings are beginning to look a little gaunt but they should be okay as long as they find something to eat every day.
It was curious to see a single set of fresh fox tracks leading over the hill this morning. I would expect to see two sets of tracks as the mated pair of foxes travel together this time of year. It could be that their courtship season is already over and the male searches for food for the both of them. Seeing a single set of fox tracks now could mean that somewhere in a warm den in the ground there are new little fox kits. The 4–6 newborn kits will stay safe in the den for about a month before coming to the surface to explore the new world.
Saturday morning I noticed a single blackbird on the ground under a bird feeder. At first I thought maybe I was seeing the first Red-winged blackbird of spring, but a closer look with the binoculars showed the yellow eye and marbled black/brown plumage of a Brewer’s blackbird. He was all by himself and was busy snapping up small pieces of cracked corn. It’s been a while since the last one of these pretty blackbirds has paid me a visit. I only see them on spring and fall migration as they pass through the area.
The gates of spring are slowing parting and soon this wonderful new season of life will come rushing over the land. Be outside—be a witness to this new beginning.
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