It was a gorgeous spring day and I knew I had to be a part of it, if only for a couple of hours. It was one of those late March days that make you want to get out and feel, smell, and taste the warmth of it. Over 50 degrees, and sunny, while the snow under my boots felt slushy and the bare ground felt mushy. Of course, there are many reasons for a spring river walk, but my favorite reason is to fill my nostrils with the fresh, Earthy scent of muddy riverbanks.
A pair of calling Sandhill cranes circled and landed in the marsh, across the river. They saw me as I walked along below and decided to land at a safe distance to keep a sharp eye on me. The big willows and soft maples along the river seemed to be full of migrating robins and occasionally a small flock of Red-winged blackbirds passed overhead. I love the clacking calls they make when they travel in flocks.
Next came the sound from a bird I hadn't seen yet this spring. The sound I heard was a low whirr, repeating every 5 seconds or so from high in the sky above me. I looked up, searching, watching for a Jack snipe who was doing his courtship flight or "sky dance." This long-billed, Robin-sized snipe is a very fast flyer, and being so small and so high in the air, he is usually hard to spot. He climbs higher and higher and then descends in a dive that is necessary for him to make the sound I heard. While diving, he spread his tail feathers, and the outside feathers on each side, create a humming sound that rises—whooo-whoo-whoo-whoo-whoo. Then he quickly climbs to the heavens to again descend, making his spring music.
The Jack snipe is an otherwise inconspicuous bird of the marshes and wet pastures. They can be found most anywhere in the U.S. but are seldom seen, spending most of their time in tall grass cover. This is the best time of the year to see a snipe, but watch for him with your ears!
Your hearing is your best ally when it comes to discovering spring birds. If it weren't for hearing the first meadowlark, I probably wouldn't have spotted him on a fence post at the far end of the pasture. With my binoculars, I could see him thrust out his lovely yellow breast and sing—"chuck, chuck,"—followed by a musical, flute-like, "br-r-r-r-r." A true spring serenade. I got word today that the Phoebes are moving north. One was seen just south of here, about 20 miles down river from me in Gays Mills. These hardy little members of the flycatcher family are the first to arrive. Feeding on spring's first, small flying insects, the little Phoebe can make a living until the larger flying insects hatch.
Spring's powerful magnet draws the Phoebe to be the first to establish his mating territory. It is the same for those hardy first insects that hatch early. Hardy, tender buds on the small trees and bushes are also ready to burst with life—and they are a welcome meal for a deer. The melting snow is exposing the grassy home of the Meadow vole. His daily scampering has been under a deep blanket of snow all winter. Now his ramblings over and under the grass catch the attention of a Red-tailed hawk. The vole had an easier time of it over the hard winter, while the hawk has been struggling to survive. So now, the hardy little vole will be there for the hawk.
How important are these early signs of spring? One could say that many lives depend on the signs that we may think of as subtle.
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