Harbingers of spring

By Jeanne Church

When I first started thinking about this month’s nature article, we were still in the waning days of February. It was unseasonably warm and easy enough to imagine a day in the not-too-distant future where migrant birds and other fair-weather creatures would return.

For many of us in Michigan, the American robin is considered the quintessential “harbinger of spring.” I grew up believing this as well; that once the robins arrived, spring would officially be here. It wasn’t until I started taking pictures that I discovered some robins never leave! Other spring enthusiasts consider the eastern bluebird to be a harbinger of spring, but they too are in this area throughout the year.

Both robins and bluebirds can survive the cold winter days of Michigan by eating wild fruits and berries that have been left on various shrubs, trees and vines. It came as quite a surprise, though, to learn just how many different plants we have that provide this critical food source for robins and bluebirds as well as others who overwinter here. Some of those fruit-bearing plants include red cedars, dogwood, hackberry, sumac, wild grape, holly, juniper, mistletoe and poison ivy!

My spring harbinger happens to be the male red-winged blackbird. It shows up in late February or early March when temperatures sometimes creep into the 50s and 60s and we are lulled into believing that winter is finally over.

What first grabs my attention, before I even see the first red-winged blackbird, is its song; an unmistakable sound that’s familiar to many, but one that is difficult for me to explain. The Cornell website, allaboutbirds.org, describes it this way: “The male red-winged blackbird’s conk-la-ree! is a classic sound of wetlands across the continent. The 1-second song starts with an abrupt note that turns into a musical trill.”

It is that musical trill that first alerts me to the coming of spring.

Not long after the red-winged blackbird makes an appearance, you’ll undoubtedly hear the “singing” of the spring peepers, an extremely small chorus frog that lives in moist, wooded areas and grassy lowlands near ponds and wetlands. It is about the size of your thumbnail and weighs only slightly more than a tenth of an ounce. Compare this to the American bullfrog at eight inches in length and a whopping two or more pounds!

I love nothing better than falling asleep on a warm spring evening to the joyful noise of all the spring peepers down by our creek.

Whatever your particular “harbinger of spring” happens to be, warmer days are definitely ahead! You can shed your
winter coat for good and breathe in all the wonderful sights, sounds and smells that the perfect spring day has to offer! Enjoy!

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