19 March 2013

Friday Field Notes: Sounds of Spring

There are few better harbingers of spring in North America than the millions of birds that begin to arrive and sing about this time each year. Sure, an arbitrary date on the Julian calendar and the act of changing our clocks alerts us to the coming season, but nothing signals the actual arrival of spring and its warmer weather quite like birds and their songs do. And much to my delight,  all kinds of birds are beginning to "spring" up around Montana.

The first sign for me that migration was underway occurred about ten days ago, when I awoke to the sound of an emphatic Killdeer in my yard. Although these shorebirds are year-round residents of western Montana's valley bottoms, this particular pair seems to take off for greener pastures every year in late September, only to return to the same exact spot sometime in March. It was a surprising but welcome event.

One of my squatters on his first day back.
Not long after this punctual plover showed up, I noticed that there was a sudden influx of robins in the area. Like Killdeer, the American Robin is also a year-round resident, but only a handful stick around and brave the winter. Come late February/early March, large flocks of these renowned "early birds" begin to invade. It is safe to say that our lawns and parks will be worm-free any day now.

The surest sign of spring I've received thus far came only a week ago. At the crack of dawn, a Song Sparrow who managed to spend all winter in my backyard began singing his complex, melodic song in an attempt to impress a nearby female. His choruses were joined by dozens of hopeful Black-Capped Chickadees belting our their unmistakable "cheese-bur-ger" song. Then, out of nowhere, I noticed a Spotted Towhee vigorously scratching through leaves and dirt, likely searching for a suitable place to nest.

There have also been a few oddities that have signaled change is in the air. That same day, a small flock of Pine Grosbeaks joined the raucous group of birds around my home, likely beginning their trip up to the higher elevations where they breed. Even more shocking was the sight of a Mountain Chickadee on my feeder and a Townsend's Solitaire taking a bath in my gutter, sure indications that birds are moving around and transitioning from winter to summer habitat.

All of this recent bird activity around my home in Missoula coincides with the wealth of observations from around the state of Red-winged Blackbirds beginning to sing and court. It is only a matter of time, really, until Western Meadowlarks arrive and grace us with their bubbly verses. I'll really be a believer, though, when Mountain Bluebirds return to paint our hillsides the color of the sky. 

What's going on in your backyard? We'd love to hear from you in the comments!

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