The weather has been delightfully mild, and the forecasted temperatures through mid-March are all supposed to be above freezing. Could winter be over? Before you try to reach through your radio to punch me in the face for jinxing it, please hear me out.
Though we’re not even out of February, there is a suite of very early spring migrants who are really hoping winter is over. They are the irrationally exuberant birds of late winter, and this is their story.
Many of you are probably familiar with the American Woodcock, a fat dumpling of a shorebird that prefers wet woods and open fields to beaches and marshes. Every February, the first of these short distance migrants arrive back from wintering grounds from New Jersey to Florida, though some may go no further than Rhode Island or even attempt to overwinter here. The males arrive back first, hell bent on securing a high-end territory where they can begin to display for females. Even though they won’t lay eggs until April or May, somehow it’s worth it for the males to risk snow storms and starvation by arriving up to two months early. These skydiving divas begin their comical breeding displays as soon as they arrive – listen for the peenting calls (hear one here) and twittering flight displays just about anywhere right now, including places like the edges of supermarket parking lots.
While woodcock males are indeed irrationally exuberant, the Killdeer might be better described as cautiously optimistic. Some winter as far south as Chile, but these shorebirds are mostly short-distance migrants. As with woodcocks, the first scouts can be expected in February, but they may scoot back south if the weather gets wintry again. These large plovers are typically heard before they are seen – the second half of their scientific binomial is “vociferous” for a reason. Breeding on ball-fields, grassy airports, and gravel pits, Killdeer are perfectly happy around people. Legend has it a pair used to nest on the Stop & Shop in Orleans, whose pebbly roof resembled stream-side gravel. I find these guys to be uncommon breeders on the Cape and Islands, but look and listen (this is how they sound) for migrants around muddy agricultural fields and grassy areas with big puddles. In other years I’ve seen up to a couple dozen at the Chatham Municipal Airport.
The biggest and gloomiest of the early birds is the Turkey Vulture. These aerial undertakers, which are sort of the opposite of the bluebird of happiness, are generally absent in winter, though sometimes a flock will overwinter in Bourne or Martha’s Vineyard, or especially around one particular pig farm in Westport. This farm sometimes supports more than four dozen vultures at what might be the smelliest bird feeder in the world. Elsewhere, the first migrants turn up in February, gliding grimly about as they search out the carcasses of winter’s victims. Though you’re most likely to see these huge scavengers flying around in their distinctive, teeter-tottering flight, wings raised in a v-shaped dihedral, you might also catch them battling black-backed gulls at a seal or dolphin carcass on a beach.
Among the songbirds, many consider the American Robin the harbinger of spring, but they are typically around all winter long. In my mind, the true first songbird of spring is the Common Grackle. These largest of our blackbirds vacate the Cape for the winter. But since they don’t go far, the first scouts poke back north in February with any bit of mild weather, and this year’s first grackles have already been spotted from Truro to Falmouth. As they are generally considered loud, piggish, and almost obnoxiously common, the excitement over those first grackles of spring is short-lived. By March, the grackles’ grace period is up and you’re back to cursing them for devouring your backyard birdseed.
While I’m sure many of you are convinced that my earlier weather prognostication has doomed us to a March blizzard, let’s not be such negative Nancys. Let’s instead emulate these most optimistic of our migrant birds of spring, and choose hope.