While waiting for spring, it does little good to keep an eye on the ground, waiting for the snow to melt. Keep an eye on the sky, and wait for the birds to come. The arrival or increase of activity of the smallest birds can tell us wonderful things about the world at large.
One reason I found North Dakota to be a potential homesite for raising a family was its great abundance of birds. On my first visit, I had never seen so many kinds of birds flying along the roadways.
For a long time I could only knew a few birds. I could tell a robin from a sparrow. And growing up near St. Louis, I certainly knew a cardinal when I saw one. But for nearly twenty years, I thought the sound of a mourning dove calling in my grandparents yard was an owl. It has taken me some time to get to know my feathered friends. But what a rewarding task it has been!
I took an ornithology class at the University of Wyoming in 2008. We had quizes on bird songs, and for our midterms and finals we had to identify the genus and species of a great number of specimens. If I was going to learn these creatures, I had to get out and see them. So I made an effort, and I got to know Meadowlarks, Northern Flickers, Swainson’s Hawks, Shrikes, Phalaropes, Avocets, and so on and so on.
Then, years down the road, I found myself the teacher, encouraging students to get familiar with a variety of birds. Waterfowl, songbirds, raptors, and the like.
Now, not having to learn about birds and not having to teach about birds, I have the opportunity to experience them on my own accord. And share a little of that celebration of seeing the signs of spring.
This morning on the way to taking my son to school, I hear Pine-siskins fleeting in the spruce trees nearby.
It was good to hear their activity. But this is their winter range.
As with the black-capped chickadees and the white-breasted nuthatches.
But true signs of spring came when I returned to the yard and heard a flittering of wings cascade through the beloved crabapple tree. Waxwings. Many, many waxwings, treating themselves to the dried crabapples still hanging from the fall. So obviously, it was time to get out the camera!
There are two different kinds of waxwings that come through our area. At first, I thought these must be Bohemian Waxwings. Named for their nomadic behavior and non-territorial behaviors. They winter in this area, and travel further north into Canada and into Alaska to spend their summers.
A sting of disappointment came. So they aren’t really migrating yet, but they are getting into large flocks…
After some time, the light brightened outside. The birds became more active. I took out the camera again, standing very still in the doorway of the sliding glass door.
These weren’t Bohemian Waxwings. Their underside was white! They were Cedar Waxwings.
They spend their winters further south. If they are in North Dakota, that means they are migrating! They are some of the first migratory birds to pass through this area each spring. Their arrival says, “Spring is happening other places. We have a long way to go for the summer. We spend our summers throughout Canada, eating bugs and fruits. But we like to get a head start, before those American Robins, who like to eat the same fruit as we do. These crabapples were just the thing we needed for breakfast.”
Keep your eye out for these sleek and sassy birds. They’ll be likely to pass through quickly, on to the next fruit tree.