Spring has a foot in the door

Bruce Mactavish
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What a difference a week makes. Last week I was writing a bird column that shared everyone’s sentiment on the lingering winter weather and the shortage of spring birds. Newfoundland was still very much in a winter mindset even though the calendar said we had already punched in one week of April.

Now, two weeks into April and the constricting grip of winter is finally letting go. Spring is bounding in. Lots and lots of snow and ice is melting. There are patches of bare ground today that were not there yesterday. Ponds white with ice are now black with rotting ice. The brooks are flowing high day after day as above-freezing temperatures day and night take a serious toll on the snow.

The birds are migrating north on the waves of spring weather. Robins and fox sparrows are everywhere now. These are the first songbirds to get back. The bouncing red breasted robin on your lawn is an iconic sign of spring in most of southern Canada.

Fox sparrows fill the woods with their sweet loud carolling song. They announce to the world that they are back and it is springtime, even if the woods are still full of snow. They know that spring has forced the thin edge of the wedge into the heart of winter and it is just a matter of time before the snow in even the most shaded part of the woods is a distant memory.

Last week at this time there were about a dozen ring-billed gulls in St. John’s. Now, seven days later, there are more than 500. When the temperature rose and the winds changed to southwest, the migrating birds poured in from the south. Bird migration is back on schedule now.

All species of birds do not get back to Newfoundland at the same time. They have to wait until their source of food is reliable. Robins and fox sparrows get back early because they are tough. Robins can eat last year’s berries but also take advantage of heavy rains that drive the worms up out of the ground.

Fox sparrows are seed eaters with a thick bill capable of cracking open even the old pin cherry pits left over from last year. They are experts at scratching deep into the leaves looking for buried seeds. As the season warms up and land becomes more hospitable, more species of birds will arrive for the nesting season.

Juncos are here all year. Their activity has changed significantly with the warmer weather. The males are singing with more purpose.

They are flying about chasing each other with tails fanned, showing off their white outer tail feathers. The juncos are just flirting at this early stage. They are getting to know each other as spring ignites a fiery interest in the opposite sex. It will be mid-May before they lay their first clutch of eggs. Since juncos nest this early, there is time for a second brood in July.

Other birds are also in the fooling around stage of their relationships. If you are lucky enough to have a flock of American goldfinches at your feeder this spring, you will notice that the males are covered with bright patches of yellow. Eventually the gaps fill in to create the solid yellow goldfinch or summer. After a long winter, goldfinches appreciate the warmth of April and show it with continuous exuberant song and noise. A small flock of goldfinches can produce a surprising volume of spring sound.

Ducks on the move

Ducks know when spring arrives. After being cooped up in ice-restricted bodies of water all winter they enjoy the freedom of movement when the ponds and brooks start flooding in April.

Most ducks are paired by now. Pairs stick together for weeks before nesting. But all is not decided yet. This is the time of year when you may see three or four ducks in hot pursuit of each other. It is typically drakes chasing an unattached female, trying to woo her.

The poor drake wood duck that overwintered at Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John’s spent two weeks trying to woo a female mallard! The mallard paid the wood duck no attention, but the wood duck never gave up until at last the mallard vanished. The wood duck was left alone. You could almost sense its disappointment as it looked blankly into space.

This is why birds of a feather flock together. When you stray out of range, like this male wood duck, the chances of finding a mate in the spring are not very good. The best thing for that wood duck is to fly back to Nova Scotia or New Brunswick, where wood ducks are supposed to be in spring.

During the weekend there was a pair of blue-winged teal at St. Mary’s. These ducks were a little out of range on the Avalon Peninsula, but they had stuck together even when wandering too far east. The bond between pairs of ducks is strong until the eggs are laid.

As we come to the end of this column, there is news that greater yellowlegs have just arrived on the southern Avalon Peninsula. This is a full week ahead of schedule.

The Easter Weekend hold much promise for spring arrivals. New spring arrivals to watch for will be osprey, merlin, northern harrier and snipe.

Spring is now here!

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca, or by phone at 722-0088.

Geographic location: Southern Canada, Newfoundland, Quidi Vidi Lake Nova Scotia New Brunswick Southern Avalon Peninsula

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