The spring of 2014 has been moving along at a nice slow pace, not too cold and not too warm. The snow and ice have pretty much melted away from the landscape and yet there are no signs of any new green. Many of the winter birds are starting to disperse in search of nesting territories. The little black and white juncos have moved on, except for just the few I see under the bird feeders scratching up bits of cracked corn. A song sparrow sings from the thicket at the edge of the marsh where the pussy willows grow. There are several male robins in the yard and the first phoebe returned Monday morning, a week or two late. The killdeers have returned also, a couple of weeks later than usual, and I watch five of them as they search for food at the edge of a wet hay-field. The killdeer is one of those birds that calls its own name as it flies low over the treeless fields. The striking contrast in the color of its plumage and its distinctive song makes it easy to recognize (killdeer, killdeer, killdeer).
Just a little early yet for many of the songbirds to return; they should start to show up in another week or two, especially if we get some rain and things start to green up. I’ve seen some interesting waterfowl now that the ponds and backwaters are free of ice. The mallard ducks are pairing up—the drakes are often seen basking in the sun with their mates next to them. If all goes well, the hen mallard should be keeping a clutch of 8 or 10 eggs warm in another week or so; can’t wait to see those little baby ducklings.
A pair of greater yellow legs wade though the shallow water and grass of the marsh pond. They are shore birds that are about the same size as killdeers but they have a longer beak for probing in the mud for worms and other insects. I usually don’t see them here in the summer but I enjoy seeing them when they pass through in the spring and fall. A pretty, male shoveler bobs on the water, he is about the same size as the mallards and his extra shovel-like bill perfectly fits his name. Ducks that are surface feeders are called puddle ducks because they feed in shallow water and rarely need to dive under to find food. Other ducks in this category include wood ducks, teal pintails, gadwalls and widgions.
Ducks that are known for diving are usually just visitors in the spring and fall in the Kickapoo Valley. They prefer open water where they have the option to dive down deeper to find food. I always enjoy watching them each spring and I know they will be leaving soon for the many lakes in the far north. All the wild ducks are wearing their nuptial plumage—males are wearing their finest feathers for the courtship season.
Diving ducks are easily spotted, even at great distance; the male’s plumage is a contrast of black over white. They don’t appear very interesting from a distance, but bring them up close and you will be amazed at how beautiful they are. The greater scaup was once seen in large flocks in the spring here in southwest Wisconsin, now I’m very happy when I see a half-dozen at a time. I’m not sure if their numbers are down or they just don’t migrate through here anymore.
The many backwaters along the river valley are good places to watch for puddle ducks. These areas are extra wet now and the abundant shallow water is just what they like. They may be a little harder to spot because their color. Though very beautiful, puddle ducks are less conspicuous than their cousins the diving ducks. I wouldn’t have seen the two small teals together on small backwater had I been driving too fast; it pays to slow down this time of year. The two teals turned out to be males, but two different species: a handsome male blue-winged teal and a slightly small but equally handsome male green winged teal. It’s rare to see them together here these days, there just aren’t many of them around anymore. A loss of habitat is the reason they no longer nest here in the summer. Fifty years ago there were hundreds of nesting teal in the Kickapoo valley, these days I see a few blue-winged teal in the summer, but I never anymore see the once-common green-winged teal.
I’ve lately heard the repeated call of a yellow-bellied sapsucker, and finally got a picture of him at the suet feeder today. At first glance he looks very much like a male downy woodpecker, about the same size, but the sapsucker has red under his chin and some yellow blush on his breast and flanks.
A little April snow came Monday, but not enough to cover things up. If you can’t see the beauty of a snowless landscape in Wisconsin’s spring, you’re not paying attention. The subtle fall colors reemerge as a lovely blend of browns, black and beige, especially in the marshes where the cattails grow.
and some off the females are already laying eggs. Looks like the geese are off to a good start and I should see the first little goslings in about three weeks.
The first butterfly of the season sat on the brown grass in the lawn, warming his wings in the morning sun. The morning cloak is always the first butterfly I see each spring and this year he’s right on time.
It’s definitely Spring. There’s no better time of year to keep your eyes and ears open.