Posts Tagged ‘Spring’

House Finch Spring

May 1, 2010

As you can tell, the male House Finches in our vicinity are wearing their spring finery. The red comes from their food supply. Females choose males with the most and brightest red, presumably because the reddest males will supply the most food to the female and the nestlings. (Except in Hawaii, where they have been introduced, but display no red, probably because the food supply there is different from the mainland – they love papaya.) Native to the Western United States and Canada, they spread throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada after several were released on Long Island in 1940. As many as one and half billion may live in North America now. Seed eaters, they flock to bird feeders where they prefer black oil sunflower seeds over striped sunflower seeds, milo, and millet. If you watch them closely, you’ll discover they are messy eaters, dropping many seeds on the ground, which both pigeons and Border Collies love.

When Spring Trips North Again This Year

February 23, 2009
Lago Desierto, Patagonia

Lago Desierto, Patagonia

In the far reaches of the southern hemisphere the days are perceptibly shorter now.  The oceans and lakes surrender some of the heat they’ve stored over the summer and the daily temperatures begin to drop.  Conversely, in the southern reaches of the Northern Hemisphere, the first signs of spring are upon us.  Daylight hours are sensibly longer, temperatures are beginning their annual climb and the earliest and hardiest of plants have sent out tentative green.

In billions of birds, these signs stir primeval urges.

For instance, today, just to the west and high above us, Sandhill Cranes, the trumpets in the orchestra of evolution Aldo Leopold called them, are rising on thermals, circling and calling, then stretching into their V formation and soaring north.

It seems too early, but January and February here have been among the warmest on record so the birds may know something we don’t.  Or maybe it has little or nothing to do with the air temperature; perhaps this instinct to move is triggered solely by the tilting of the earth’s axis toward the sun. Possibly it is some of both; ancient pathways laid down in their genetic code coupled with the short term knowledge that the earth is warming and it is therefore safe to leave earlier.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

There are other signs that winter is losing its grip.  The male House Finches that spent the winter with us are growing their bright red “attract a female” plumage, our feeders are being drained of seed more rapidly, at our store hummingbird feeders are selling even though it will be more than a month until the hummingbirds begin to arrive, and we are writing about the spring migration and looking for the hay fever medications.

Billions of birds migrate twice a year, some from the far tips of the southern hemisphere to the far northern tips of the northern hemisphere.  Passerines fly in great flocks to the boreal forest of Canada to breed.  Hummingbirds by the millions make the hazardous journey from Central America to North America.  Raptors of all types climb into the skies and head north. They’ve been doing it since long before there were humans to observe it, even long before the continents assumed their current shapes and sizes.  (For perspective, the first true birds appeared about 145 million years ago.  Modern birds had evolved and most survived the great K-T extinction at the end of the Cretaceous which wiped out the dinosaurs.  That was about 65 million years ago.  Homo Sapiens have been here for only about 250,000 thousand years.)

The earth 50 million years ago

The earth 50 million years ago

Science is not certain exactly how they do it.  Some elegant experiments have tried.  Perhaps it has something to do with the position of the sun in the sky?  No.  Make the birds fly only at night and they unerringly find their way home.  Maybe they navigate by stars?  No.  Make them fly only during the day and home they go.  Subtle fluctuations in the earth’s magnetic field?  Possibly.  But put them in a screwed up magnetic field and they orient in the right direction to go where they are supposed to go.  Tiny maps in an onboard computer?  Could be. but scientists have played games with bird brains and still they go home.

Most likely it is a combination of all of the above.  They fly thousands of miles and return to the same square foot of earth they left months earlier.  Some can even do it even though they’ve never been there before.  Many bird species migrate without parents teaching their offspring where to go, yet the youngsters get there all the same.  They fly in such numbers that they are visible as huge clouds on radar screens.

Weather Radar Image of Migrating Birds

Weather Radar Image of Migrating Birds

Of course, birds are stellar navigators.  Raise homing pigeons in a mobile loft and send them off to forage one morning and then, while they are gone, move their home to the next county and they will show up at the relocated loft in time for dinner.  Nobody knows for sure how they do that either.  Not all of life’s questions have been answered.

Wonder is an underrated emotion and, as we’ve often said before, calling someone a “bird brain” is not an insult.

“Now”

April 19, 2008

Spring arrived in our little corner of the universe this week. After several days of plodding through the paperwork of tax time here in the U.S. we were ready to get outside for awhile and the weather cooperated.

Our yard has become home to two species of birds which did not join us last year. Two Red wing Blackbirds and four Inca Doves have joined the menagerie, at least for now. “Now” is a key word when one spends anytime observing birds or nature. Nature, by nature — if you will forgive the pun — is not controllable by us. Those Red winged Blackbirds which are here today, may be gone tomorrow. Some or all of the little Incas may spend the summer or move on. Grasping at the hope they will stay will not keep them here any longer than they choose to be here. All that can possibly be done is enjoy them while they choose to stay.

And enjoying Red wing Blackbirds is not a difficult thing to do. Here is a brief video of a male calling. Blackbirds tend to flock and, in our experience anyway, enjoy large fields which we do not have around the house. Since we have never had any here, we lack confidence they will stay but are hopeful. And, for “now” we have them and their song.

What is more, on April 16th, the day after we paid our American dues, the first hummingbird of the year arrived. It is a Black chinned Hummingbird and currently has six feeders all to itself. Now there is a bird which is enjoying its “now.” Soon it will be sharing with many more hummingbirds and we’ll get back to our pseudo-science of trying to count them all. (You can read about methods of counting hummingbirds here, here and here.)

But, for now, it is “now” in our yard and it is good.

Thought for this March Day

March 29, 2008

Snow Geese

One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw is the spring.  A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence.  A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed.  But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat.  His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.

– Aldo Leopold –

Spring

March 14, 2008

Spring is coming to the Northern Hemisphere. We know this for three reasons. First, the great northward migration has begun and, in Europe, begun early. The first Barn Swallows arrived in Cyprus in early January and the first White Stork in Poland the first day of February. These birds, arriving from Africa, are taking quite a chance getting to Europe this early. It is still winter, especially in Northern Europe. Here is the news story.

White Stork

We also know that Spring is coming because we saw Chuck, our Greater Roadrunner and his lady friend today. Chuck had a leaf in his mouth and declined hamburger to fly off with the leaf which we think must mean the two of them are working on their nest. Or perhaps they are remembering Neruda, “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.”

Finally, it must be Spring because we put out the hummingbird feeders. We know it should be at least another two weeks before any arrive. No matter. We’re ready should they decide to come earlier. A weather system is predicted for the weekend with winds blowing from the south so it is possible a few will grab a ride on those winds.

_______________________

Thanks to Mindaugas Urbonas for the photo of the White Storks.


%d bloggers like this: