DAN ANDREWS/Niagara Outdoors
There’s nothing that says summer like being woken up from an afternoon nap in the hammock by the call of a red-wing blackbird.
Even more comforting though is the first call of the year. As the later days of winter drag on we’re left begging for warmer days and a return to the growing season. Garden equipment is stocked on the shelves and soon the rakes, shovels and bedding plants will be flying out the doors of the local retailers.
This is an exciting time of year for some because it’s the season of annual firsts. The buds are swelling on trees and within the month we will likely be harvesting pussy willows which tend to be the first tree to awaken in Niagara. There’s always an exciting chatter in the coffee shops about a first robin sighting despite a few pockets that hold them year round.
Both birds and trees seem to come in order year after year re-enacting an annual nature production that never gets old no matter how many times we watch it. The only thing that changes is the time this show gets started. Many birds never leave like the chickadee, blue jay and mourning dove but there is a wide variety of migratory birds that indicate how early or late spring will be with their arrival.
Each year right after snow melt I go look for whitetail deer antlers that have shed during the winter. During these hunts I usually spot my first Eastern Towhee. Last year I spotted my first wood duck in the wetlands on March 2nd. For those who wished for a repeat of last year it should now be apparent that just isn’t going to happen. The timing is much later this year but the firsts are starting to flock in.
Soon there will be drunken cedar waxwings falling off buckthorn shrubs. The waxwings gorge themselves on the readily available fermenting berries temporarily immobilizing some birds. Other birds we hope to see soon are those pesky grackles with their iridescent green heads and artificial looking eyes as they flock down and empty bird feeders spilling most of the seed on the ground. They make quite a racket with their clucking type of call and their tails cast a distinctive triangle silhouette making them an easy bird to identify from a distance.
Then will come the red-winged blackbird and it almost seems cruel how the timing works out for them. It is very rare to have an April in Niagara without snowfall. Even after last year’s summer like conditions in mid March we still had a blast of winter in April. These summer migrants had to endure the cold even after nesting season was underway.
The one bird I get most excited to see is the Baltimore oriole. I can usually predict its arrival within a couple of days because they arrive right on queue as the leaves of the ash trees just start to unfold. Ash trees are one of the later trees to awaken as is the oriole one of the last songbirds to migrate back to our area for summer.
I do not believe we have a native tree in Niagara that unfolds its leaves later than a catalpa tree. One of the last to lose its leaves in fall this tree looks dead when all the other trees have already re-installed their seasonal canopies.
Many of us have spent the winter watching other migratory birds that spend their time here in Niagara and then move north for summer. The amazing flight of snow buntings will catch your eye while hiking through the snow covered fields.
The Niagara River is an amazing place for birders to visit all winter long. The river has been home to an assortment of ducks, gulls, swans and geese through the winter and soon will attract migrating summer residents. Last year I saw my first black-and-white warbler while watching the loons near the Peace Bridge. This little warbler has a zebra pattern to its plumage and really stood out as it groomed the brush for emerging insects.
Another first that illustrates spring has arrived is the annual battles over nesting beds between the Canada geese. I’ve already witnessed a start to this during a few warm days in January but with the return of cold the geese have moved back to open water and feeding locations.
Once the spring sun reopens the marshes and wetlands the battles will resume and these turd factories won’t seem so cute and friendly.
So what does it for you? What makes you say winter has finally given to spring?
Is it the first crocuses in the flower garden, the chorus frogs and spring peepers, the arrival of monarch butterflies or the sound of the first lawnmower on the street?
Either way it is time to watch this re-enactment and note the order.
Knowing the simple things in life like when the birds come home seems to be a forgotten pleasure by many.
It’s a lot more important to know than when the next smart phone or movie is going to be released so teach your kids.
Stop and smell all the flowers this spring and watch our birds return and trees awaken.
If you don’t already know this story you’re going to enjoy it every time it’s read and hopefully it will outlast every other story ever known to mankind.