This time last week the landscape took on the look of winter white. After most of the snow had melted and the land looked more like spring than winter, March did its magic and changed things overnight with several inches of new snow. I didn’t think the snow would be on the ground long, and sure enough, the rain came two days later and melted it all. The run-off caused the Kickapoo River to overflow and flooded the low land in the river valley, even coming up over some of the country roads. It got cold on Wednesday night and froze the standing water before it could run-off. The water receded under the ice and left a frozen water line indicating how high the water had been. It was the second time the river had flooded over its banks since the first of the new year and for sure it won’t be the last time.
The cold stayed around for the rest of the week with temperatures in the low 30s during the day and dipping into the single digits at night. The bird migration slowed a little bit, but not to a standstill, as I saw at least one new summer bird every day. Before the ice melted I spotted a few different kinds of ducks in the flooded areas—a pair of pretty Hooded Mergansers and several pairs of Wood Ducks in the shallow backwaters. Five beautiful Ring-necked ducks swam in a flooded pasture—divers that stopped to rest before moving further north. It had been a long time since I’d seen them in their spring plumage, and all were males. They sported dark purple heads with yellow eyes and a white ring around the lower end of their bills.
It’s not often the diving ducks come through this area, as they prefer large rivers and lakes. But, I’m always keeping my eyes open in the spring and fall for the occasional migrant that stops to rest here in the valley.
A few little Chipping Sparrows showed up at the bird feeders this week along with a couple of song sparrows who sang their lovely spring songs to me. A shy Fox Sparrow also made his first appearance but stayed near the brush pile. He’s larger than the other wild sparrows and Juncos, and is reddish-brown with a heavily spotted white breast. His musical song is a varied assortment of short clear notes and sliding whistles—a song made for spring.
The warm sun melted the thin ice on Friday, and once again the muskrat pond was open for swimmers. A fancy pair of Canada Geese stood basking in the sunshine, a good time to do some preening. No part of the goose goes untouched by a thin coat of oil, retrieved from the oil glands at the base of the tail. After coating his bill with oil, the gander reaches the sides of his breast by turning his head upside-down, rubbing his long neck over the soft feathers. He then rubs his head and face over his breast to coat those hard-to-get-at feathers. The oil keeps the geese dry and warm and keeps their feathers clean and all in place.
The muskrats were busy swimming across the pond as they added new vegetation to their houses. They talked to each other—a high-pitched muffled chatter—as they passed each other on the pond. It’s one muskrat family to each house, and the 5-6 young born there will appear in early May. The muskrat's hairless, narrow tail is nearly as long as his body and flat on the sides to form an excellent paddle. Muskrats can be found pretty much everywhere in North America, including Canada and Alaska. They sure get around, and where there’s water, there’s liable to be muskrats. They are mostly vegetarians but will sometimes eat small fish, clams and frogs. The entrance to the muskrat house is usually under water, which is just fine for these frisky swimmers.
The female kestrel has had good luck at catching something for breakfast and she flies up to her favorite perch with a Harvest Mouse in her talons. Not far away from where the kestrel is perched, a Northern Harrier glides low over the tall grass. There aren’t many of these grassland hawks left that return to the Kickapoo valley. The harrier, or Marsh Hawk, hunts for meadow voles as he flies low to the grass listening for the voles as well as watching for them. Even the slightest rustle of grass or mousie squeak is detected by the harrier’s keen sense of hearing. It’s been sad to see the hawks’ historic habitat disappearing, as what little grassland remains is planted to trees. People don’t seem to understand how rare it is these days to find any land that has been left for tall grass—almost none. I doubt the harriers can overcome their fate and soon will be only a memory, like the Barn Owl and Short-eared Owls before them.
The icefalls in the area have been spectacular this year. They decorate the limestone cliffs in a frozen stream of beautiful colors. They will be the last of the winter’s ice to melt in the late spring.
The temperatures will be in the forties next week, says the weatherman, and it’s time to start raking out the flower beds, and so on. Better get a new pair of leather gloves.
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