Tuesday morning was brisk and still as I went to the creek for a pail of water. Only the spring song of a male cardinal broke the chill silence. I heard the excited chirping of a robin from the edge of the woods. He seemed quite happy to greet a new spring day. Then I heard the song of a bird that calls its own name: “Phoebe. Phoebe.” It flew from its perch on a branch near the creek and landed in a small willow tree near the water. The phoebe was a little out of place as it searched for insects stirring over the moving water and frost-covered banks. In the 18-degree cold, my breath rose like steam in front of my face. I knew the warm sun would thaw things out in an hour or so, and I knew that the little fly-catching phoebe would find something to eat then.
Phoebes are the first of the flycatchers to return in the spring. I’ve often wondered why they choose to come so far north so early. After all, there really isn’t an abundance of insects to eat when it’s below freezing. But they are very resourceful and know where to find food when there doesn’t appear to be any. The warm morning sun quickly melts the frost, and within an hour, I see ladybugs and boxelder bugs moving along the siding of the house. There were even a couple of honeybees that were enjoying the warmth of the sun while clinging to the side of the house. I had no doubt the phoebe would find something to eat.
The sounds of spring greet me every time I go out the door. A hairy woodpecker hammers on a hollow tree trunk, and sparrows sing: “maids, maids, maids, put on your teakettle-ettle-ettle-ettle.”
I had just stepped outside Wednesday morning when I heard the soft, high-pitched notes of a flock of swans high overhead. If they had been silent, I probably wouldn’t have seen them as they passed over the valley. They were startlingly white against the blue sky, and eighty of them flew together in a broken V headed northwest.
The American coot’s pointed white bill is in sharp contrast to its gray-black feathers and blood-red eyes. It swims against the river’s current and occasionally dives head first under the water. After 10-15 seconds, it resurfaces in the middle of the river. As a boy, I called them mudhens, because they were most often seen in the shallow, muddy bottom ponds and lake shores. When startled off the water, they must run across the surface a considerable distance before they can take wing. This coot had arrived the night before and settled on the river when it couldn’t find any pond or backwater that wasn’t ice covered. It’s probably only stopping to rest for a couple of days before moving further north.
Thursday morning at first light, I heard the unmistakable gobble of a tom turkey not far from the house. As it got light enough to see, I could make out the forms of three large turkey birds. A fine strutting tom, tail fan spread and feathers fluffed, was trying to get the attention of the two pretty hens at his side. The hens seem to be more interested in searching the ground for something to eat and paid him little attention.
Much of the ice had disappeared by Friday and a lot of the ponds and backwaters were now open. There were shallow ponds in the hay fields and pastures. Often I see shorebirds waddling in the shallow waters and short grass. One such pond had seven killdeer patrolling the edge of the water, along with a single, long-legged shore bird known as a greater yellow legs. It was the only one of its kind I saw at the shallow pond Friday, and like the coot, it probably only stopped to rest for a while before resuming its migration north.
Several pairs of sandhill cranes have returned to the Kickapoo River bottoms this week. Often they can be seen standing in a cornfield or pasture. When not searching for food, they spend a lot of time preening their large gray-brown feathers. How stately they are with their long necks, legs and wings. Their wonderful loud bugling calls echo up and down the river valley every spring, and they add greatly to the natural beauty of the land.
Raccoons are busy searching for food along the river banks wherever their noses lead them. Their nighttime excursions often bring them into the yard in search of something to eat. They can’t resist the bird seed that may be missed by the birds and often fight over what is left.
The woodchuck that spent her winter under the brush pile is out picking up dried leaves and grass. I think she is lining her nest to make it nice and warm for her little babies that will come soon. It will be fun to see who comes out to play from under the brush pile in a few weeks.