This morning I awoke to find frost on the ground, reminding me that despite the passing of the equinox, spring is not yet completely here.
While on my morning walk through a stand of pines, I came across the shed antler of a White-tailed deer. A buck probably dropped it there several weeks ago. Most of the White-tailed bucks I've seen lately are sporting new velvet antlers, and their coats are turning from light brown to cinnamon.
Other interesting spottings and sounds from the past week include the Rufus-sided towhee. I've been hearing the towhee's familiar song:"Drink-your-tea!" The shy towhees spend much of their time on the forest floor, kicking through the dry leaves for insects.
A recent light rain brought the color green onto the scene. Area horses have been waiting all winter for the appearance of those shoots of fresh grass. A steady diet of dry hay all winter simply does not compare with the fresh greens. I share in their enthusiasm, if not their meal; the sight of the first splash of spring green raises the temperature of my spring fever.
I heard, but did not see, a yellow-bellied sapsucker chattering in the woods:"cak, cak, cak, cak." This sapsucker has just returned from warmer climates. Meanwhile, water striders and water beetles have been busy in the pond. Garden snakes appear as well, coming out to soak up the warm sun.
I watched a brown thrasher search the ground around the brush pile for an insect lunch. Soon he will begin courting, singing his many songs.
Each spring my thoughts return to bird songs I hear in the Buena Vista marsh of central Wisconsin. This 60,000-acre dry marsh began as a lake formed by a melting glacier. Now open grasslands, Buena Vista is home to some of the last remaining Prairie chickens in the state.
There's a 600-acre pasture that throughout the warm months is grazed by beef cattle. They eat the grass down pretty short, so that it's mostly bare ground when winter comes. As the snow melts away in late Febraury and early March, two Prairie Horned larks appear on the brown grass. Bleak as the late winter landscape looks, it serves as home for the pair of larks, who run across the grass singing to each other:"tsee, ti-ti!"
Elsewhere on the pasture, the silence is broken at daylight by a dozen Prairie chickens. It's barely light enough to see them as they flutter in for a landing around a short knoll, letting out soft clucking noises. Within a few minutes they have spread out along the ground, each with his own ten-yard circle to dance in (and sing in).
The chickens are eager to strut their stuff. A handsome chicken will bow deeply, fanning his tail feathers and dropping his wings to his sides. He raises his pinnate (neck feathers) high above his head and begins to move his feet rapidly. He turns from side to side, showing the other males how good he is. Then his feet stop and his exposes the large yellow air packs on the side of his neck, while giving his call:"ooo-loo-woo." This song is known as Booming and can be heard each spring morning on Buena Vista marsh.
There are around a thousand Prairie chickens living on the marsh, and lots of different Booming grounds. On a still morning, you can hear the Booming from every direction on the 50,000 acres.
The spring music of the Prairie chickens was once heard nearly everywhere in the midwest Prairie states. Today land that was once used by wild chickens for Booming grounds has been put into row crops, and the once common bird has nearly disappeared. Thanks to years of thoughtful habitat preservation, the Prairie chickens may still be seen in Buena Vista marsh, and a few other special places.
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