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BIRDWISE: Avian signs of spring in the lakes area

Local birding expert Marshall Howe shares his top 10 favorite birds.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker has a distinctive “ratatatatata...tata..tata...tata...tat...tat” cadence when it drums. The white line on the wing is also diagnostic.
David J. Ringer/David Jeffrey Ringer - stock.ado

Any signs of spring are always welcome in the north after a long and cold winter. This year, despite those two weeks of below-zero temperatures we had a couple of months ago, spring-like conditions have arrived unusually early.

For many of us, the most gratifying sign of spring is the reappearance of migratory birds that spent the winter in more hospitable environments to the south.

Here are my top 10 favorite birds that tell me that spring is here:

10. Red-winged blackbird

The “konk-a-ree” call of the male redwing in the thawing cattail marshes can’t help but bring a smile to my face. I’ve experienced it all my life, as this species can be found throughout the U.S. Later, they become a nuisance at feeders, but that’s another story.

9. Great blue heron

On warm days in early April, returning great blues grace the skies in small groups, easily recognizable by their large size, long bills and majestic, deep wing flaps. Unlike cranes, their long neck is retracted into an S-shape, with the head resting over the body. They usually end their migration at traditional, colonial nesting grounds. Nearby, there has long been a colony near the north end of Long Lake.


8. Song sparrow

Like the redwing, song sparrows occur throughout North America but vacate the northern latitudes in the winter months. They are among the most familiar of backyard species and their song, despite regional dialects, are recognizable anywhere. They should be back by now. Listen and watch for them (NOTE: Songs of any species can be easily found by Googling them on the internet).

7. Hooded merganser

The males of these tiny ducks impress their mates, and human observers as well, when they raise the head feathers into a stunning white crest during courtship displays.

6. Eastern phoebe

Hardly a visual stunner, this drab, medium-sized flycatcher nonetheless is a sure sign of spring. It’s the earliest flycatcher to return (April) and announces itself by bobbing its tail repeatedly while giving its familiar “fee-bee-fee-bay” call. We’d be less familiar with this bird were it not for its habit of nesting under the eaves of houses, barns and sheds. The bobbing tail is a sure identification sign.

5. Meadowlark

Whether it’s the eastern or western species (both of which can be found here), they arrive in late March or April and their songs cascade over open grasslands like a spring breeze. The two species have very different songs, each lovely in its own way. The western meadowlark is one of the most vocally conspicuous species in the prairies of the central U.S. Near Park Rapids, they are easily found at the airport.

4. Ruffed grouse

OK, this isn’t a migratory species, but the drumming sound the male makes with its wings on logs in the woods to attract females is unlike anything else and is a classic indicator that spring has arrived. It is well-known to those of us who spend time in the woods or along the Heartland Trail.

3. Mixed flocks of warblers

Most warblers being long-distance migrants, they don’t arrive in numbers until mid-May. As I’ve pointed out in previous articles, when conditions are just right, flocks of 10 or more species may be found drifting through the trees as they feed on early-emerging insects. As a group, they are among the most colorful and truly beautiful birds in the world.

2. Common loon

As soon as the ice is out, these birds seem to appear miraculously. Their haunting wails and yodels are so iconic that the common loon has been designated Minnesota’s state bird. Need I say more?

1. Yellow-bellied sapsucker

Although it may seem an odd choice for #1, I’ve always found these migratory woodpeckers to be fascinating. They arrive in April and, though they are somewhat secretive, their distinctive drumming decrescendo is instantly distinguishable from the steady, rolling drumming of other woodpeckers. Except, perhaps, if they choose to drum on my satellite dish, it is one of my favorite sounds of early spring. Once you learn it, I’m sure it will become one of yours.


Marshall Howe is a retired biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He specialized in bird population studies. Howe has been a Park Rapids resident since 2010.

The male hooded merganser displays its huge, striking crest during courtship.
BRIAN E KUSHNER/Brian E Kushner - stock.adobe.co

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