March 2nd – Departures, Arrivals

Snow Buntings in flight. [At least 3 are males…can you pick them out?] -D.Ward

What an exciting time of year this is!! The beginning of the Spring migration!! For the next 3+ months birds will be heading for their breeding grounds, a massive movement of avian biomass which, sadly, is witnessed by very few. But for those of us that are tuned into this phenomenon, it is the greatest show on Earth. [And remember: in this life you are given only so many migrations – so get out there and enjoy it!]

We’ve been busily trying to band as many Snow Buntings as we could this Winter. Whenever cold and snow abounded we were baiting and trapping and we ended up with around 1800 banded between the 3 sites. But, anxiously, I watched the snow disappear and the temperature begin to rise, effectively eating up the snow cover here in far southern Ontario. A few days ago I couldn’t find any buntings at my site…a bad sign…and I didn’t have the feeling that Snow Bunting conditions would return. I thought maybe they had started on their return journey to the Arctic and Greenland. But two days ago I was notified that there was a sizeable flock on Walpole Rd. 10 so I went down to try and find it. It certainly was sizeable! It was very difficult to get an accurate count as the “flock” (or “drift) was made up of a number of units that seemed to be acting independent of each other whole still maintaining some overall cohesion. So a group of 200-300 would fly up and head deeper into the (huge) field while other same-sized, or larger, group(s) kept feeding, and another group flew to the road to ingest grit. And then these groups would change places – like leapfrog. But while doing this the whole flock kept moving in the same direction, a couple of hundred meters at a time. My rough estimate – and I feel it’s quite conservative – was that there were well over 1500 birds involved. When feeding flocks come into the traps they tend to be “flighty” – like shorebirds they’ll swoop in, check the area out quickly, fly up again, fly around and then swoop in again. This whole flock was doing this although there were no traps. They just seemed to be super-excited and I wondered if I was witnessing a mass display of Zugunruhe, a German term meaning “migratory restlessness” My sense is that these birds were getting ready to take off and head home. I watched them for about 20 minutes until they flew deep off into the field….and were gone.

Then yesterday, I came across another flock of about 200 Snow Buntings in my backyard, so to speak – in the large field right behind town. Although not nearly as large a congregation they were just as excited. I’m pretty sure these birds are on their way. No wonder they’re excited! Think of the route many will take: along Lake Ontario and then the St. Lawrence to Labrador and then north where some will continue into the Canadian Arctic while others make an ocean crossing to Greenland.

But while these Winter birds are departing, long-awaited migrants are returning from the south. Two days ago 3 Red-winged blackbirds were checking out the pond just outside the village. Yesterday (within 300 meters of the Snow Buntings) I counted 16 and saw a flock of 12 Common Grackles. What is it about the Red-wing’s konk-la-ree call that lifts your spirits and makes you forget about the cold and damp and mud of March?

Today, out at the Farm banding site, I was treated to 4 flocks, amounting to 188 birds, of Tundra Swans in large V’s heading SW toward Long Point’s Inner Bay. A stunning sight against the deep blue sky. They too have a magical haunting call. And then a Killdeer called on its way up the river (which is still frozen down there). The next surprise sighting was of an early Turkey Vulture – it amazes me that they can keep their bald heads warm!

So we may get some more days of cold and maybe even snow but the birds are making it clear: Spring is here!

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