"In like a lamb, out like a lion" is a favourite old-timer's forecast for March. But not this year, with incredibly warm and sunny weather throughout the month. And the birds responded, with the first flush of migrants back well ahead of schedule, topping up our Big Year list to 117 by month's end.
March should be designated as the official month for philosophers, for it offers a great refresher in the value of overcoming, or at least out-living, adversity. After the long silence of winter, what better music than the cheerful "chic-a-ree" of a newly-arrived Red-winged Blackbird? What better artistry than his blazing red epaulets as he stakes out his corner of the marsh, or the black bib and yellow breast of a Meadowlark atop a fencepost in the pasture? Even the iridescent blue sheen of a grackle is pleasure to the eye as he swaggers and chuffs around your yard. In a week or two, as these early migrants become commonplace, their beauty seems to fade, but for those first few days, they are the joy of life's revival.
For us, March was also a reminder that counting birds doesn't always need to be far from home, as those migrants swelled our annual list. We did travel a little - a bit of birding added to a working trip to Prince Edward County, a quick stop at the Port Credit waterfront in an unsuccessful search for a reported Western Grebe, and even a jaunt up to Algonquin in search of some of its northern specialties. We did find both Gray Jays and Boreal Chickadees in Algonquin, along with a close-up Pine Martin in shining fur, but otherwise those extra miles yielded few extra birds. Boreal Chickadees, by the way, are a shyer, browner version of our common Black-capped variety. But their best feature is their call - a sleepy "chick-a-zee-zee" which makes them sound more than a little drunken.
Best birds of the month? Aside from the Great Gray Owl that we reported on last month, we would have to highlight a couple of species clad in subtle hues of reddish-brown, neither of them particularly rare, but both particularly welcome.
The first is a Fox Sparrow, one of the breeders of the northern forests that passes through our area early and quickly, and thus could easily be missed. One appeared at our friends Gayle and John's house mid-month, but would not show for us. A few days later, a gorgeous male showed up just outside our own window, vigorously scratching with both feet in the remains below the feeder. Several arrived at Arni Stinnessen's the same day, and he kindly provided his photo to share with you. If any sparrow can be called gorgeous, surely it is this one, with its rich spring colouration.
Our other "best bird" is an old friend called the American Woodcock, surely proof that the creative forces that shaped our world have a hidden sense of humour. Despite its bizarre appearance, this is a creature designed for functionality - a long beak for probing moist soils for earthworms, eyes set way back on the head so it can watch for predators while probing, camoflauge plumage that fades into the fallen leaves. You know the Woodcock are back when you hear a distinctive nasal "PEENT" just as darkness falls, for that is part of a Woodcock's way of claiming his territory.
This great photo of a Woodcock is from birdsoftheworldonline.com, which has many stunning photos of all kinds of birds.
The other parts of his territorial defence are equally charming, and lead to one of our favourite spring rituals. After a half-dozen or so PEENTS, a Woodcock spirals its way heavenwards on its stubby wings, and in the fading light performs a sky dance featuring loops and twitters and chirps and then a sudden silence, which means a rapid descent is underway. That descent brings the bird back to the same spot, often a mossy opening set amid the young poplars that it prefers. While the sky dance is underway, you can move closer and closer to that spot, then freeze in the crouch position when the music stops. Over the course of several flights, you can often get quite close to the home turf, close enough to get a good look with the aid of a flashlight. What you see on the ground is another bizarre form of dance, a kind of turning shuffle on tiny legs, interspersed with the inevitable PEENTs. Country folk often refer to this species as the Timberdoodle, which seems an appropriate name for this creature of odd habits.
So things are looking up. The Goldfinches at our feeders are shedding their drab winter plumage and becoming more yellow by the day. April will bring a steady diet of new arrivals, though not yet the birding bonanza that is May. Thanks again for your support, and don't forget that every dollar you pledge brings $4 for the purchase of Wolf Run Alvar - your donation matched by our anonymous donor, and that total matched again by the federal funding. Think spring!