Birders await the return of spring


By: Corey Ellingson

It’s that time of the year when folks yearn for spring to come. Spring means green grass, colorful flowers and the beautiful sound of Meadowlarks ringing across the prairie, or robins announcing their arrival from parts down south.

As I sit at the dining room table looking out the patio window, I can see a steady stream of furnace exhaust coming out the neighbor’s roof. Snow is blowing sideways as it floats its way across the ridges and valleys created by three months of snow pack and drifting. Most years, we are a week away from the arrival of waterfowl coming up the Missouri River, or a mountain bluebird in brilliant sky blue showing up in the Badlands announcing spring is near. Not this year.

The river is still frozen solid and the 10-day forecast is not showing highs above the teens for another 10 days.

February is the toughest month to come up with material to share with folks. The unusual species found on the Christmas Bird Counts have probably passed. Birds spend the winter simply in survival mode. If they try to relocate to a better location, they may never find it and succumb to winter’s harsh climate.

This particular winter, there was very little excitement. In the winter of 2017-2018, irruptive species were aplenty with both species of crossbills coming down from the north. Folks were willing to brave subzero wind chills to get a look of the pinkish plumage accentuated with flashy white wing bars on black wings of a white-winged crossbill in local spruce stands. Their counterpart, the red crossbill, was also well represented.

Folks would drive miles of back country roads to get a photo of a hard-to-find snowy owl minding its own business on the prominent perch of leftover hay bale. The large white bird would swivel its head surveying the countryside with striking yellow eyes, perhaps planning the hunt under the cover of darkness.

People would come up to me and share the excitement of having 100 common redpolls descend on their thistle feeders for the afternoon. These birds depend on birch catkins in the far north for food, which apparently bloom on a two-year cycle, because the redpolls come down in big numbers every other year. This is the off year with just a few scattered reports in the northern part of the state.

With the loss of CRP years ago, and the deeper snow in much lighter grass cover these days, the hawks and golden eagles of winter are less common now, too. Maybe due to the dry summers the past couple years, the rodent population may be at a low point. If there is less food, these birds of prey move on to find a more suitable wintering location.

So, with few snowy owls, fewer than normal raptors, few irruptive crossbills and redpolls, even fewer robins than normal, I have been catching up on other tasks. I am dreaming of birding trips that may be on the horizon come spring, whenever that may be.

For you folks that are able to travel south and enjoy the warmth, sun and birds, take your time coming back. For the rest of us, spring will return eventually, and hopefully with that comes the wide expanses of green prairies, crocus flowers and singing meadowlarks. Spring will come folks, spring will most definitely come, eventually.


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