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Archive for March 12th, 2010

First birds of spring

Birdgirl here again.

We had a very pleasantly mild week here in eastern Ontario. Above-freezing high temperatures every day, the sun out and shining most days. It was lovely taking a walk through the woods or across the fields. We usually get a mild spell such as this sometime around mid-March. These warm periods generally not only bring nice weather, but also several new arrivals from the south. I’m talking birds, of course. The first returning migrants tend to ride the coattails of the warm front, their cue, or one of them, that the timing is right to head north.

There have been great flocks of Canada Geese flying high overhead in long, noisy Vs. They head mostly north, though sometimes east or west as they move from one grain field to another. On Wednesday I heard my first Killdeer, a medium-sized shorebird that is just at home in the muddy fields as it is on the shores of water. Just this morning I heard a robin, traditionally considered the harbinger of spring, but actually a winter resident in small numbers in some areas of southern Ontario.

For me, though, the true sign of spring is the return of the Red-winged Blackbirds. Having grown up beside a small maple swamp and cattail wetland, the “oak-a-lee” (or “konk-a-ree” depending on the field guide you read) is the definitive sound of spring for me. From the first song in mid-March, the snow not yet melted off the ground, through the budding of the leaves and the greening of the grass, the opening of spring ephemerals and blooming of the fruit trees, the sound of the Red-winged Blackbirds in the swamp was constant and abundant. The song will forever take me back to my childhood.

Part of the reason that Red-wings can return so early, before the snow is yet gone, is that they can make do on a diet of seeds if needed. Indeed, they are usually a regular sight under birdfeeders, gathering in large groups from mid-March onward here (above, sharing space with a couple of Blue Jays). However, they also forage on what insects they can find. A specialty of theirs happens to be a small caterpillar that makes its home right under their noses (beaks?). If you watch blackbirds in a marsh for a while, you might see one or two perching on a cattail and jabbing at the brown seed head with its sharp bill. When I first observed the behaviour I thought they were pulling out nesting material. What they’re actually looking for are tiny caterpillars, which turn into moths called Shy Cosmet, Limnaecia phragmitella. Exactly two years ago to the day I did a mini-investigation on a couple of cattail heads from the swamp and wrote about my findings here.

In the flocks under the feeders you’re likely to see nice, crisp black birds (upper left) and birds that are slightly speckled with brown (lower right). The speckled birds are young males, individuals that were hatched last summer, while the all-black males are older birds, ones that were parents last summer. The brown speckling on some young birds can be so extensive that they may almost resemble females, although that’s pretty rare. These younger birds aren’t as flashy as the older ones, and may not get a chance to mate this summer, depending on how much competition there is for females. Red-winged Blackbirds are polygynous, meaning that one male will usually mate with multiple females within his little patch of the swamp. The red patches on their shoulders are used in displaying both to females and to other males – the male with the larger and brighter red epaulets usually wins the standoff. Since the younger males generally have smaller epaulets, they have to settle for second-rate territories, fewer females, or perhaps (the poor fellows) even simply wait till next year.

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