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Inside the Outdoors: Spring brings an avian explosion

Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn

Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com

It’s often said that “good things come to those who wait.” In other words, sooner or later good fortune will find us. The “good thing” that many Minnesotans have been most eager for is weather that resembles genuine spring. We’ve had our disappointments. We have been teased and tempted with summer-like temperatures and rapid snowmelt, only to be dealt the blow of multiple inches more snow, and thermometer readings that dipped below freezing. Shorts and polo shirts one day, stocking caps and polar fleece two days hence. Though we grumble about it, we can reset our expectations as quickly as the next weather forecast. It seems to be in a Minnesotan’s DNA!

It’s a different dynamic for the many migratory birds that return in spring to Minnesota from southern destinations; some as near as Iowa, others as far away as Central America. Ideally, their return is timed to coincide with seasonal changes that will enhance their chances of survival, and to successfully raise the next generation of their kind. Changes like melting ice on ponds and lakes, greening vegetation and the first hatches of insects.

These migratory returnees face the same unpredictable and inhospitable conditions we do. But unlike us, they can’t change into warmer apparel, or turn up a thermostat. They must endure spells of hostile conditions that will hopefully take a turn for the better before their survival is in doubt.

The last 10 days have seen an explosion of returning migratory birds. This began even before the brief heat wave we experienced during the week after Easter, which was followed by the recent snow event. A good phenologist—a person who studies seasonal cycles of climate, plant and animal life—would keep track from one year to the next of the dates of appearance of these returning avian migrants. I’ve sadly not acquired the habit of recording these things. But I certainly take note of them.

For instance, it was the Friday before Easter—April 7—when I saw and heard the first returning robin. They say that “familiarity breeds contempt”—something common is not always appreciated—and I know it’s true with robins, one they have returned en masse and are seen everywhere. But the first robin sighting of spring is special.


That same day, when snow still lay deep, was also the first sighting of a great blue heron. We usually see them standing statue-like, cautiously stalking in the shallows of a pond or lake, hoping to ambush a careless frog or fish with a lightning-fast thrust of its long, sinuous neck and dagger-shaped bill. But with most still waters still frozen over, this one was seen as it stood on its stilt-like legs atop a snow-covered hummock, in a wetland of cattails surrounded by alders. Perhaps there was moving water in the tiny trickle of a stream that runs through it, and instinct had informed the heron that the odds of finding a meal here were least fair, until open water arrives.

American robin perched in snowy tree in Minnesota after flying north in spring migration.
Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com

With Easter came the start of a week-long warmup, a dramatic shrinking of snowbanks, the opening of some smaller ponds, free flowing rivers and streams, and narrow bands of open water along the edges of some larger lakes. Herons now seem to be in all these places; even in roadside drainage ditches. As proof that spawning fish will migrate through these ditches from lakes to shallow ponds, while driving by I saw a heron standing immobile in a ditch, a panfish-sized victim clamped in its bill and about to become a lump passing down the heron’s long, serpentine neck.

Even more dependent on open water are ducks, geese and swans. When my travels take me over a bridge spanning one of several area rivers, or past another vantage point near open water, I keep an eye on the rear-view mirror for following traffic, and a finger ready to punch the vehicle’s flasher button, so I can safely pull over and scan the water for birds with binoculars. Following the post-Easter week of unseasonably warm weather, waterfowl seemed to be everywhere. There were goldeneye ducks on the Crow Wing River, a raft of several hundred ducks, geese and swans—even a dozen pelicans—on a backwater of the Gull River, ringnecks and wood ducks on a nearby pond that was just freed of its ice, and waterfowl any place open water could be found.

Songbird migrants, too. Before the weekend snow event, a band of jet-black, yellow-eyed male grackles were engaged in serious territorial and courtship combat in the yard. I also spotted my first warbler of the season—a yellow-rumped warbler—the first of many varieties that will soon be passing through. Most warblers feed heavily—even primarily—on insects, one reason they are not typical holdover bird feeder neighbor residents during our winters. As evidence that this warbler’s insect-driven timing was good, we experienced the season’s first episode of windshield-smashed insects, at dusk on Friday as my wife and I returned from an out-of-town visit.

Minnesotans are all too familiar with weather-related disappointments that often accompany our transition from winter to spring. But if the recent arrival of dozens of migratory birds is any indication, the latest installment of winter will soon be banished permanently.

Mike Rahn - Inside the Outdoors.jpg
Mike Rahn, columnist

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