Two days of upper 40 degree weather were enough to spur me to get out and visit some of the birding locales I reluctantly “mothballed” last November when the first snows made them inaccessible (see 2014-12-01 UV Blog – “Now is the Winter of Our Discontent).
The warming temperatures also raised hopes that the first vanguard of spring migrants might begin to arrive. For the last few days the Upper Valley Birders Listserv has had much speculation about when the first red-winged blackbird or common grackle “scouts” might appear.
A likely place for them to show up would be the wetlands at the Ompompanoosuc River’s outflow into the Connecticut River at Kendall Station in Norwich. Most of the water might be iced over, but a couple of houses adjacent to the wetland have feeders that in past years have drawn in first arriving members of the “blackbird” family. Thus, it was with considerable anticipation I headed over to have a look.
A strong northwest wind did not auger well for birding of any kind when I parked my car over by the Ompompanoosuc boat launch and walked over to Kendall Station Road. The birds likely would be hunkered down in sheltered areas making observation very difficult.
There is a narrow stream that drains a neighboring impoundment into the Ompompanoosuc’s outflow. The water’s movement as it passed through a culvert under the road was sufficient to create some open water that was hosting 19 mallards and three hooded mergansers. That was an encouraging start. I scanned the tall marsh grasses along the outflow’s eastern boundary for red-wingeds and/or grackles, but none were present. I continued on across the railroad tracks and followed the road on its way north parallel to the tracks.
The first 200 yards of the roadway’s western border is a dense thicket of shrubs, white pines and mixed hardwoods. This usually is a very productive stretch, especially in the spring when warblers are in the area. This time, however, its residents were a smattering of blue jays European starlings and mourning doves. A little farther up I encountered a half dozen chickadees and a heard but not seen red-breasted nuthatch, its presence made known by its distinctive nasal sounding, one pitch, repetitive song.
It takes about 20 minutes to get to the road’s end where it turns and crosses back over the tracks to US Rt. 5. This time the journey was made a little slower by the dirt road’s deeply rutted condition, a result of the two-day thaw. Such rapid deterioration did not bode well for mud season. Along the way, I heard the shrill whistle of a male, northern cardinal, a sure sign of advancing spring if ever there was one.
By the time I had concluded the return journey, I had accumulated a total of 14 species for the day, the most numerous being the afore-mentioned, mallards followed by blue jays (16) and chickadees (15). It was a respectable count given the conditions, but, alas, none of my hoped for early arriving migrants.
That first encounter will have to wait for another day. Probably it will not be a venue of my own choosing either. More likely, it will be a chance encounter as I walk out of the post office or drive past a marshy pond or wetland. In any event the result will be the same. I’ll hear the red-winged blackbird’s distinctive whirring song or the grackle’s repeated, hoarse “check, check” call, and my spirits will soar knowing that whatever the weather conditions might indicate to the contrary, spring surely is coming!
Photo credit: As surely as spring follows winter, red-winged blackbirds soon will be back in the Upper Valley. Wayne Benoit - Hanover, NH