Arrival of birds celebrates coming of much-anticipated spring
Long before any of us thought about the first day of spring, the cardinals stirred.
On late January mornings when temperatures dipped below freezing, they sang joyously. Soon after, the chickadees joined in the chorus of hope.
What some of us didn't know is that they were responding to longer daylight, not higher temperatures.
So even this year, the coldest winter on record in Janesville since at least 1948, the birds believed in the light.
“In the animal world, spring starts at the winter solstice,” said Beth Goeppinger, longtime bird watcher. “That's when we begin to have more daylight every day.”
The informed naturalist works at the Richard Bong State Recreation Area in Kenosha County, where she keeps daily records of the comings and goings of many birds.
In the days ahead, she reminds us that migration, one of nature's most moving performances, will bring back the tanagers, orioles and warblers. One by one, they will wash away our winter weariness with bright colors and fluid song.
In Southern Wisconsin, the first wave of travelers included redwing blackbirds, robins and sandhill cranes. They returned March 10, about three weeks late, Goeppinger said.
“Probably because of the polar vortex that had such strong north winds,” she explained.
Birds are smart. They won't fight a north wind. Instead they will wait for a south wind to help them reach places still shaking off snowdrifts.
Other early arrivals include bluebirds, killdeers, phoebes and turkey vultures.
Some birds that used to migrate are staying all year.
“We had bluebirds and robins all winter here,” Goeppinger said, explaining the birds had access to water in heated birdbaths.
Another wave of avian migrants, including the thrashers, towhees and thrushes, will show up in April.
By the end of April and in May, the long-distance travelers, who spend the winter in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America, will return hungry and tired. This group includes warblers, indigo buntings and rose-breasted grosbeaks.
An estimated 3 million birds cross the southern border of Wisconsin on a typical night in May as they journey to breeding grounds, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology reports. During the heaviest times, some 30 million migrants pass overhead as we sleep. Many fly at night when it is cooler, the air is calmer and there are fewer predators.
The birds who migrate the shortest distances are the earliest to arrive back in spring. The ones who winter in the tropics are the last, Beth said.
The naturalist has heard all kinds of stories about migration. One of her favorites is that hummingbirds hitch rides on the backs of bigger birds. Not true. Ever.
All birds travel transient skyways under their own wing power, and some are superstars. The Arctic tern, for example, might fly some 25,000 miles in its round-trip migration from the Antarctic region, where it winters, to the Arctic, where it breeds.
Goeppinger offers sound advice on this first day of spring: “The more you get outside the more you will see. We have such a short time to enjoy some of these magnificent birds.”
The migratory pathways above our heads soon will be teeming with creatures in search of endless summer. From hummingbirds to hawks, the arrivals are especially sweet this year because we have endured. We have truly known the depths to which the mercury can fall.
And we have waited a long time for spring.
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org