Changing of the Birds

The other day I saw three male robins poking around under a spruce tree in a small patch of bare ground, which was in stark contrast to the vast surrounding snow-covered landscape. Two days ago I heard a report of a flock of hundreds of (again, male) robins that descended on someone’s property a bit east of the Twin Cities. These robins are being terribly sadistic, as they KNOW that their presence is taken by most humans as a sign of spring, yet spring in Minnesota is a long way off.

The reason people think that Robin Red Breast is a sign of spring is that we believe that robins fly south for the winter and north for the summer, so when we see them, it must be getting near summer. The fact that many robins don’t migrate at all, but simply become reclusive for the winter, is not widely known. The fact that when they do migrate, they don’t necessarily migrate to a warm, sunny southern climate, but rather to a place east, west, south or maybe occasionally north, where they can be more easily reclusive, as also not widely known.

But none of that matters. What matters is that the robins remind us that it is time to switch to Summer Birdwatching Mode in a couple of months, so we should start getting ready now.

Here is the To Do list for summer birdwatching mode:

  1. Look for some snowy owls. If summer is coming, this is your last chance to see them.
  2. Make sure you know where the backup and extra binoculars are. The main binoculars are, of course, next to the window.
  3. Go through the bird books to decide which ones to bring to the cabin this year.
  4. Go buy a new bird book.
  5. Check the notebook from last year and see whether you need a new one.
  6. Think of something new to try this year. A recording of the loons? A close up of the eagles?
  7. Discuss bird-feeding strategy with rest of family.

This year, we should have a second-year eagle fledgling over by the marshy bay, and we hope the loons manage a chick this year (last year they did not). If we time things right, we might be able to intercept the tundra swan migration, as we did two years ago. And with a little luck…if we keep an eye on the web-based data and perhaps change our routes a little…

…whooping cranes.

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6 Responses to “Changing of the Birds”

  1. March 26th, 2009 at 11:30 am

    Monica says:

    Birds. I have discovered my inner geek and my love of bird watching-which is perfect activity to do with the kid, except that being in nature makes him (and me) totally squirrelly and not at all quiet. I bought a guide to bird watching with young people, but promptly packed it in a box when I moved and it hasn’t resurfaced yet. On the topics of whooping cranes: I swear, The Kid and I saw one flying low over the Willow River in Willow River State Park, just east of here in Wisconsin last spring. I was told by a more experienced birder that it was probably a sandhill crane, but from the pics I have seen, it wasn’t. I wasn’t crazy then? I mean, the wing span, the head shape, the whiteness… what bird could I have mistaken it for?

  2. March 26th, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Monica says:

    Oh, also, we had robins in January poking around under our feeders–fyi.

  3. March 26th, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    doug l says:

    Very interesting, though the recent revelations about the snowy owls, that they spend a far larger part of their lives over arctic sea-ice than ever suspected, is even more surprising.

  4. March 27th, 2009 at 9:47 am

    Greg Laden says:


    Your choices are probably Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret (or some very similar egret) Sandhill and Whooping Crane.

    Blue Herons are all “dark” (but not too dark) while the others are lighter

    If you rule out the Heron, snowy egrets and whooping cranes are whiter than sandhill crane. All are big and all flap their wing in a similar way, and you can’t tell the relative size when you see only one in many cases.

    The two cranes have distinct coloration on the wings and head. If there was distinct coloration on the wings and head, it was not an egret. If there was distinct coloration on only the head, that could be an egret because egret’s have coloration on their beak and that can get confused with head coloration at a distance.

    So if we’ve ruled out everything but cranes, then I’m not the best person to ask because I don’t see many cranes, but here are two clues: Sandhill cranes have red on their heads if their males and mature, but they don’t all have it and you can’ always see it. So if there is read, = sandhill, no red, can’t tell. And, the coloration on the whooping cran’es wings are the distal (towards the tip) half or less and as you say, the whites are whiter and the brights are brighter.

    Also, there may be a conservation officer in a an ultralight following or leading the bird. That’s a whooping crane.

  5. March 27th, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Monica says:

    Well, it’s been a long while since I saw what I saw, but I bet my bottom dollar that it was either an egret or a whooping crane. Whatever it was, it was impressive. And, there was no conservation officer guiding it to flight ๐Ÿ™‚ It was white white white, and I was so surprised to come across it on our little walk that I didn’t really look at it’s head. Whatever it was it got me hooked.

  6. July 3rd, 2009 at 8:59 am

    karin rethlefsen says:

    On May 29, 2009 we saw a whooping crane flying in the Whitewater wildlife area for the first time. We did not know what it was at the time but we had been driving this road for 10 years to spot egrets, eagles, herons, ducks, and numerous other birds. This bird was huge and had black tips on the wings. We joked and said we had just seen a mutant egret. It wasn’t until much later that we reconized the bird we had seen in a bird book as the whooping crane. Totally cool!

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