March wasn’t exactly lamb-like when it was leaving, and I’m hoping April will forget about bringing showers. Not only was the month of March just plain wet, it was windy. That I try to accept but for only one reason. Those low pressure systems that sweep through the Northwest every spring are free fuel for migrating birds.
The migrants working their way up the West Coast don’t start traveling when the wind begins to blow. They sense when a low begins to build and get moving so as to benefit from its full effect. This is most evident on those mornings when we wake up to blue skies and gusty “breezes” out of the south. That’s when there are often some different birds in the yard, the bird bath or on the feeders. Songbirds, known as passerines, move under cover of darkness.
Songbirds aren’t the only travelers moving into and through this region. The raptors are also on the wing.
When you are prey for these hawks, traveling at night is safer. Sometimes, on moonlit nights, it is possible to spot the nocturnal travelers. When flocks or small groups pass overhead the moonlight gives them away. This is more common in different parts of the country depending on how heavily the different migration routes are used. The Mississippi River is a great funnel for migrating birds. In the fall, thousands if not millions travel its length. I’ve seen this once. It was a captivating experience. The skies seemed full of swallows, blackbirds, grackles and others. The moonlight parade went on for hours.
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In the Pacific Northwest, our dense forests and overall greenery plus the lights of many cities and towns make it more difficult to enjoy this avian parade, but it does happen. Maybe in the coming weeks clear skies will provide the opportunity to see who is passing by — or coming to stay.
April is right in the center of swelling migration numbers. There will be growing numbers of swallows, warblers, flycatchers and vireos arriving. Many will be heard calling territorially toward the end of the month. While we are waiting for these summer residents from Mexico and Central America to arrive and add their color to the Northwest, we are bidding farewell to other birds.
During April, the golden-crowned sparrows and fox sparrows begin slipping away. Varied thrush leave lowland wintering grounds and move to the deeper forests and higher elevations. Out on the water, courting displays hint that waterfowl will soon head to their northern nesting grounds. Bufflehead and goldeneye ducks, along with the grebes, mergansers and loons, are some of the species getting excited about heading north to raise their families. If you take some time to check the water near home, you stand a good chance of seeing several of these species change from winter plumage to breeding plumage. Many look like completely different, very attractive birds.
All of the ducks are entertaining when they splash about, toss their heads or pump their bills up and down. Scoters are among the best when their numbers are large enough to encourage spirited competition. The males chase each other in all directions while beating the water with their wings. Instead of chasing away the competition, they appear to be dashing here and there without accomplishing anything. That’s the way the ladies seem to see it. They keep out of the way and look totally uninterested.
Spring winds are a little easier to tolerate when we keep in mind they are providing free energy to millions of wings now on the move. When I tap the barometer and see it dip again, I’ll try not to grumble. For the creatures moving north under their own power, this is a good thing.
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