Spring’s Early Arrivers Have Made Their Return

Spring’s Early Arrivers Have Made Their Return

Spring may be here, but at this writing many of our avian signs of spring are still to the south waiting for later departures.

May is the month when songbirds seem to abound in New England with courtship songs, displays, territorial disputes and nest building. By May, the thrushes, vireos, warblers, wrens, swallows and even the ruby throated hummingbirds are back. The fields and forests will almost throb with birdlife.

Until then, we can enjoy our feathered neighbors who have already returned to The Last Green Valley. This week, I saw what looked like 50 robins in the backyard. A veritable congress of males was checking out the neighborhood. They didn’t stick around very long and continued on their way. Soon, they’ll be searching out nesting locations and jostling to attract a mate.

Red-winged blackbirds have returned as well. While walking past a marshy wetland area in our neighborhood, I heard the unmistakable gurgling song of the male red-winged blackbird. I watched as it clutched a cattail, its weight causing the reed to sway slightly as the bird strained to announce its return in a discordant, out-of-tune trill. I startled it, and it took flight flashing its distinctive red wing patch.

I know of a few locations where woodcock are known to conduct their interesting courtship aerial displays and where they breed and rear young. These once common, and somewhat comical, stubby birds have long beaks for probing the forest soil for earth worms — their primary food source. I have heard reports that woodcock have been back since early March, which is a great concern since we had about two feet of snow during the first two weeks of the month.

I plan on checking out my favorite woodcock breeding location in a few days and hope they survived the snows. There is nothing quite as magical as waiting quietly on the edge of a field as dusk descends and, as if out of nowhere, up flies a woodcock in a straight vertical line into the darkening sky. It hovers for a moment, then drops in twists and turns with a twittering sound to the ground. It will repeat this several times in an effort to attract a mate.

One would think these birds would wait for warmer weather before making their return journey north to breeding grounds. To us humans, this year’s late winter chill of March was more suited to skiing than nest building. In fact, it is not warmth that signals birds to begin their northern migration, but the increase in daylight hours. The lengthening of the daylight initiates the impulse to begin their journey.

And so continues the cycle of life, timed to begin again with the increase of energy-giving sunlight. As the sun reaches higher, its warmth will melt away the remains of winter as its last vestiges, like an ancient warrior, retreat to a final stronghold in the dark reaches of the woods. Among the thick hemlocks, winter makes its last stand until vanquished at last by the strengthening warmth of the sun.

Spring has arrived. The sun has won. It always does. The early birds tell me warmer days will soon be here. I bid a fond farewell to old man winter and welcome the season of renewal and rebirth.

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. I invite you to tune your ears to its song, open your eyes to its wonders, and join me as we care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.

Bill Reid is the chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

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