Late winter and the struggle for survival

By BRIAN ALLEN
Special to the News Advocate

The first day of spring was March 20 this year or that’s what they say, and we in Michigan know it’s just another day on the calendar.

I think of the first day of spring as when the sky is finally blue, the crocuses are in bloom, the inland lakes have thawed and the birds are coming back. But this coming back gets a bit complicated in our area.

Sandhill crane

Sandhill crane

This year a protracted spell of warm weather in late February influenced some birds to move up from the southern U.S. back to Michigan. Birds we usually think of as the first signs of spring, robins, red-winged blackbirds, even sandhill cranes returned to the area.

Sunny skies, temperatures in the 50s and even 60s and the distant call of bugling sandhill cranes certainly made it feel like spring. It didn’t last.

The jet stream, made less stable due to the warming Arctic, swooped to the south, and cold and snow returned. This seems to be a pattern in recent years and the birds, along with those of us that hope for an early spring, suffer together.

In my last column, I mentioned how some hardy birds like robins and bluebirds can survive in small numbers in the area through winter. They usually are found in wetlands with the food sources being Michigan holly or in field edges with the alien invasive multiflora rose.

As winter progresses and this food source is finished, they often move into town or neighborhoods where ornamental trees with fruit such as Mountain Ash, Flowering Crab and Viburnum bushes have been planted. Unfortunately for the birds many ornamental trees now have “bird resistant” fruit cultivated, so the trees “look more attractive through the winter”.

American woodcock

American woodcock

You can help struggling late winter birds by checking with your nursery or landscaper and purchasing native trees and shrubs with fruit that has not been cultivated to be bird resistant.

Another early returning bird this year is the “Timberdoodle” or American woodcock, a shorebird that many know of by their courtship sky dances in the evening. In wetland meadows at dusk woodcocks can be heard calling their nasal sharp “peeent” call and then as they fly skyward and tumble back to earth they emit a dripping crescendo of whistling calls that evoke the promise of spring and accompany the initial calls of the Spring Creepers and Chorus Frogs from vernal ponds.

As I write this the temperatures are down in the low 20s, the lake effect is blowing, and I know the American woodcocks are sheltered in the springs and seeps of the county waiting for the clear evenings skies with their setting winter constellations and the mild breeze that will soon be here.

Brian Allen has been watching birds and doing bird research for over 40 years. Readers can contact him at manisteebirder@gmail.com for more information or to send questions that could be answered in a column.

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