Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Early Spring

Common Redpoll

(Transcript of Monday's For the Birds)
Spring migration is proceeding way ahead of schedule this year. Saturday was warm enough that the songs of a robin drifted through my open window along with the twitterings of 100 or so redpolls. These tiny northern finches usually stick around into April. I think they’ll be long gone by then this year--by Monday, only two remained. I still have a dozen Pine Siskins and hope a pair will nest in my yard. On Monday, a junco showed up --I don’t know if this is a new arrival or one of the small flock that wintered in my neighborhood--but the American Tree Sparrow that arrived with him was new.

Saturday, a pair of Merlins was hanging out and calling. There are lots of large conifers in and near my yard, and I wonder if the Merlins are searching for a good nesting situation. They use an abandoned crow nest--usually one built the year before. I know a couple of crow families nested near here--I could hear the babies begging from two different nests last year--so there are at least a couple of possibilities. It can be tricky to see a crow nest--they build them high up in a spruce or pine tree, very close to the trunk and well hidden. So if Merlins do end up nesting here, I may eventually figure out which tree they’re using, but will have to be very lucky to actually find the nest.


I don’t understand how it came to be that a bird-eating falcon became so noisy; don’t they scare away all their potential prey? Yet somehow this seems to work for Merlins. I enjoy these feisty little falcons, but it can be hard for me to deal with them in my neighborhood, fueling their bodies and those of their young with my chickadees. Back in the early 90s when a pair of Merlins nested down my block, one of them would fly straight over the sidewalk along Peabody Street until he reached my house. Without slowing, he’d drop so his wings were almost brushing the sidewalk until he’d passed the corner tree. Then, staying carefully behind trees until the very last moment, he’d bank and head straight to the feeder in my side yard. Whichever bird he grabbed never knew what hit it.

When I moved to Duluth, Merlins were very difficult to find. They started nesting in town during the 1980s, and I fell in love with them even if I have trouble abiding a bird that eats chickadees. One year a storm knocked a Merlin nest out of a tree when the young were close to fledging. I got to rescue the two chicks. They didn’t need anything from me except to be brought to a safe branch. The mother yelled at me from the moment I showed up, flying over my head as I carried the chick to a safe spot. She was a bit calmer as I did the same with the second chick, but kept up her incessant calling the whole while. I took a couple of photos of the babies but hurried on, knowing how I would have felt if a strange giant of another species picked up one of my babies.


I don’t know if we’ll have any Merlin nesting events so close to my house this year, but it was exciting hearing them on Saturday, and made me feel like spring is definitely happening. I’m concerned about these record-breaking temperatures--Russ saw a butterfly this weekend that wasn’t a mourning cloak, and more and more the timing of plant and insect emergences doesn’t coincide with the life cycles of many of the birds that depend on them. I don’t like to be an alarmist, gentle weather and new spring arrivals inspire hopefulness, and the equinox tends to bring out my equanimity. So even as I do what I can to conserve energy and try to minimize my carbon footprint, I’ll take pleasure in the season. Spring is here!