It’s Spring!

House Finch_CarsonNatureCenter-LittletonCO_20100406_LAH_1980Usually, Colorado’s seasons have little to do with the calendar. This may be the vernal equinox, but we still expect snow and it’s way too early to plant those tender flowers and veggies. After gardening in California for years, I’ve mostly adapted to the challenge here, but from March through mid-May I would drag around the house feeling frustrated that I couldn’t plant anything the least bit frost-tender.

Then I started birding—and to the birds, March means spring! As a birder, there’s plenty of activity to keep me glued to my binoculars.

Canada Geese_FCNC_LAH_6110Some birds are flying north, especially those with long trips ahead of them. In fact, some birds—Purple Martins, for one—reached the southern U.S. back in January! (Too bad they rarely visit Colorado.) They’re followed in February by Pectoral Sandpipers and American Golden-plovers. Barn and other swallows appear right on schedule in March, and not just to Capistrano. And it will soon be time to bid Rough-legged Hawks good-bye as they move north. That vacancy will be filled with Swainson’s Hawks arriving from Argentina. With such long trips and early arrivals, I wonder—to these birds get to spend any time in South America? Is it truly worthwhile to fly so far, considering the cost in time and energy?

Colorado is prime wintering grounds for many waterfowl. After my first summer as a birder, I had begun to doubt the existence of all those other ducks—until they finally arrived in the fall. Now they’re heading north again, waiting just until the frozen lakes thaw. Some were here all winter; others, such as Blue-winged Teal, vacation farther south and don’t pass through Colorado until mid- to late spring. Canada Geese are here all year, but the birds shift north and south with the seasons, so the birds we see now won’t be the same individuals nesting here this summer.

Great Horned Owl nestling at Peyton 17may2008 LAH 013rAnd speaking of nesting… whether they just flew in or have been here all along, the arrival of spring means that it’s time to build a nest. Owls, hawks, and other predators have been at it for weeks, and are already sitting on eggs—or raising young. I’ve seen mamas enduring a face full of snow, sacrificing their comfort to keep those eggs warm. Perhaps raptors nest early so they can take advantage of all those bite-sized baby rodents and bunnies—a perfect beak-full for growing nestlings.

Mountain Bluebird_RidgwaySP-CO_LAH_4246Bluebirds are one of the traditional signs of spring, and they don’t have far to come. Some Western Bluebirds winter in New Mexico; others fly farther south into Mexico. Mountain Bluebirds (right) also move slightly south, and also east to the lower elevations of west Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. It’s really too late to be cleaning out last year’s boxes, as they’re already back, building nests and laying their first eggs. (If you are responsible for an uncleaned nest box in current use, wait until the young fledge, then clean the box before the next brood is laid.)

Even birds that nest later in the season are donning their flirting duds. Ducks were first, but by now House Finches (top) glow in bright crimson, Goldfinches burst out in sunshine yellow, and even those annoyingly-difficult-to-ID monochrome shore birds are putting on a bit of makeup.

Western Meadowlark_RockyMtnArsenalNWR-CO_LAH_1531Then there are the songs—every male is puffing his chest and singing siren songs to potential mates, or warning other males top keep out—this patch of land is taken. I’m enjoying the first House Finch refrains, and several weeks ago I heard a rusty Western Meadowlark warming up for his spring concert.

This is the best time of year to get out and look for birds. They’re so much easier to find when they’re brightly colored, establishing territories, advertising their presence. Birds in breeding plumage are easier to identify, too. It’s also the best time of year to invite a novice to bird with you. It’s spring! Grab a friend and go birding.

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