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BIRDWISE: They're back -- and right on schedule

The northern flicker is Minnesota's second-largest woodpecker, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. In flight, flickers show flashes of yellow under their wings and tails, which is why they're sometimes called yellow-shafted flickers. (Marshall Howe/For the Enterprise)1 / 2
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the purple finch has been famously described as a “sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.” Iti uses its big beak and tongue to crush seeds and extract the nut. (Stock photo)2 / 2

My wife and I left our wintering grounds in Arizona by car about two weeks ago, following the route of many migratory birds north through the central plains to Minnesota.

Various early migrants — like robins, grackles, red-winged blackbirds and western meadowlarks — were evident through much of the journey.

The meadowlarks sang their melodious song often from wires along the rural roads. It was a preview of what we would be seeing when we would arrive in Park Rapids. Luckily, we arrived just before the blizzard that inundated many of the Nebraska and South Dakota areas we had just traveled through.

I never cease to be amazed at the totally predictable calendar by which migratory birds leave in the autumn and return in the spring. Their migratory impulses are programmed in their brains and largely controlled by changes in daylength, shortening in the fall and lengthening in the spring.

When we got home it was very clear that dark-eyed juncos were well on their way north. Mostly absent in the winter, these birds covered our seed-strewn lawn and many looked quite plump, betraying the accumulation of fat that fuels their migrations.

As we drove to St. Cloud this past Tuesday, roadside flocks of juncos in the hundreds flushed here and there along the way.

Other species that greeted us on our return from Arizona were purple finches, red-winged blackbirds, American robins, fox sparrows and one American tree sparrow. Also, small numbers of lingering winter birds, like common redpolls and pine siskins, were present. A few of these continue even now, but they are beginning to be replaced by a flood of other migrants that will either nest in our area or go farther north.

Over the past week, new species arrived almost daily. Our first yellow-rumped warblers, always the first of the warblers to arrive, showed up on April 8.

The following day, we saw our first northern flicker, which, along with the yet-to-be-seen yellow-bellied sapsucker, is a migratory species. All the other Minnesota woodpeckers are year-round residents. Flickers, in my estimation, are among the most beautiful of all our birds. Watch for them foraging on the ground in search of ants.

Some of the other "firsts" I've seen in the past week are ruby- and golden-crowned kinglets, rusty blackbird, eastern bluebird, belted kingfisher, osprey and wood duck.

Our first common loon was in the Fish Hook River in town on April 15.

American woodcocks should be here performing their wondrous courtship flights around dusk. Listen (and, if you're lucky, watch) for them "peenting" on the ground and twittering high in the air in open wooded areas before plummeting to the ground.

Do you get the sense that I'm enjoying this time of year? Migration, as predictable as it is, has always fascinated birders like myself. Encountering species just arriving from distant wintering grounds is like renewing old friendships — it makes one feel very connected to nature. Once you've learned to identify a variety of species, I think you will feel the same way. In future articles, I will be talking more about how to improve those bird identification skills.

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