Signs of Spring 5: Looking out the Window and Walking on Some Trails

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Spring is starting to explode all around us. I have flocks of arriving blackbirds and grackles out under my bird feeders (usually in the afternoon). They chow down on the spilled seed and the leftover deer and squirrel corn and then head off on their way north (or east or west).It is nice to see them, but I hope that they don’t stick around too long. Their noise and aggressive behaviors drive the other birds away from the feeders.

Male cardinals (who have spent the winter very companionably feasting on black oil sunflower seeds together) now are chasing each other around the periphery of the yard. They square off, beak to beak with crests raised and heads slanting forward and low (such attitude!) in attempts to intimidate their opponents and get them to back off and leave the prime breeding spots (and females who are still busily eating their seeds!) to them.

The juncos are still here, so winter has not yet completely disappeared. The red maples are just starting to flower. They are flowering later than most previous years. The big silver maple at the bottom of my field has been in flower for a couple of weeks now. I am starting to feel the tree pollen in my itchy eyes and runny nose.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Robins have quickly become an expected species out in the field or in the back yard. Their status as harbinger of spring vanished very quickly! They are digging through my leaf piles looking for worms, and singing so beautifully at dusk and at dawn. When I take Izzy for her early morning walk, we are often chorused by a vibrant wall of bird songs. I hear robins, cardinals, titmice, and wrens. The crows and the blue jays add their own rhythms, too.

The scarlet and red oak pole trees all around the yard still have most of last year’s leaves attached to their branches. Passing winds rattle the dry leaves like castanets. Pretty soon the new, emerging leaves will weaken the attachment points of the old sending the old ones tumbling to the ground. Leaf fall as a sign of spring? Sure, why not?

Up at Harrison Hills Park I saw three downy woodpeckers fussing and chasing each other up and around a sugar maple tree. I assume that all three were males contesting the boundaries of their breeding territories. They also had spent the winter in much more social frames of minds and had been parts of the mixed bird flocks (along with chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and creepers) that foraged together for seeds and insect larvae. The female downies are probably still in one of these flocks, but the males have been compelled (ah, hormones!) to go off on their own.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

The bluebirds are back at Harrison Hills, too! We saw two small groups of four male bluebirds also acting very badly toward each other. One of these groups was up around our boxes that line the periphery of the park’s northern meadow. Two the males were actually bouncing between two of our nesting boxes. One male perched on top of the box while the other ducked inside for a quick look around. Then they retired to a nearby tree to chatter and peck at each other. We saw one pair go beak-to-beak and actually crash to the ground in their argument! It was very tiring just watching them expend all of that energy! The female bluebirds will be arriving very soon. By then the males should have their territories all worked out and be ready to puff up, sing and be as impressive as possible!

We checked out the big pond at the south end of the park to see how the beaver is doing. We did not see any new beaver activity. The lodge in the middle of the pond looked unchanged from January. We did see a very handsome pair of mallards, though, swimming around the edges of the pond.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Walking across the fields at Harrison Hills we also saw colt’s foot flowers and swarms of little wolf spiders (Pardosa spp.) running about on the tops of the dead vegetation. Deborah did a beautiful ecological study of these spiders several years ago. In an old field ecosystem (much like this one up at Harrison Hills) she had found two, almost identical species of Pardosa apparently living together in a shared habitat. This would seem to violate one of those fundamental laws of ecology called the Competitive Exclusion Principle which simply states that no two species can occupy the same niche in the same ecosystem!   What Deborah did was then sample for the spiders first during the day and then during the night. She found that one species of Pardosa was active during daylight hours and the other was active at night! Niche separation! No violation of Competitive Exclusion and a very neat research project and paper!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Skunk cabbage is still in flower in most of wet areas of the park. It is just starting to send up its first green shoots and will soon fill in these low areas with its heavy, broad leaves.

Over Spring Break we flew out to New Mexico and enjoyed a jump start on the early to late spring transition. Flowers were blooming all over Albuquerque and trees (cottonwoods, willows, redbuds) were in early leaf (such beautiful light green shades!) or flower. The Sandhill cranes had departed just the week before we got there, but we saw flocks of robins (all in the city itself, none out in the surrounding desert), some really impressive raptors (Coopers hawks, Harriers, and kestrels). We even saw (while we were touring an animal rehab “zoo”) flocks of ravens (who perched on the tops of the cages of the captive birds (hawks, owls, caracaras, and, yes, even a raven) probably harassing them mercilessly (except at feeding time when the tables were turned!). We also saw a wild roadrunner scooting along the dirt path in between the cages of the peregrine falcons and the barn owl!

It was amazing walking on paths with a full sun beating down on our heads feeling a dry, wonderful 80 degrees! Our sinuses actually cleared out and I could feel my vitamin D levels returning to normal!

We are in typical March cycle of weather right now. One day is warm and sunny and the next is cloudy and cold. Rain and snow are in the long-term forecast. Summer is coming!

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1 Response to Signs of Spring 5: Looking out the Window and Walking on Some Trails

  1. Paul Hess says:

    I’m now unable to follow the seasons closely at Harrison Hills Park, as I used to do every year since the park opened to the public in late 1970, but your reports and commentaries are a delight to read. I’m happy that Patrick Kopnicky pointed me to your blog.

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