As spring marches into Montana, there is a surprise awaiting me every time I step out the door. Day by day the spring migrants are returning from their warm winter locales. The first harbinger of spring is the Sandhill crane. This year they arrived on March 15th to a world still blanketed in snow. Their long legs maneuvered lithe bodies across the crusty snow in search of patches of bare ground. Within a week, their graceful courting dances began as the world around them melted out.
Next to return to the neighborhood were the mountain bluebirds. Their brilliantly colored feathers are a delight to my eyes, which had become accustomed to the flat white light of old snow and mud. Within days, they were busy bringing twigs and grasses to the hollow post in our yard where they nest each year. On the Equinox, the official start of spring, the red-winged blackbirds made their first appearance. Their buzzy “konk-a-ree” song will become the backdrop of life along any body of water for the next six months.
As March comes to a close, the western meadowlark at last arrives. Its sweet, flute-like melodies permeate the summer days on the prairie and grasslands of our state. Within a few weeks, we may become so accustomed to birds’ songs that we forget how utterly silent the winter was without them. Even the black-capped chickadee, a year-round resident, is singing more frequently and ardently now than in the dead of winter.
As many bird species arrive to spend the summer with us, so too do some species depart. These winter residents prefer cooler climates, and head north as far as the Arctic to breed during the summer months. The rough-legged hawk, for example, breeds in the far northern tundra and only winters in the northern U.S. It is more difficult to notice the departure of these species. They exist in the fabric of our daily lives for months, and then one day we realize that we haven’t seen them for a while. Their return in the fall will signal the arrival of winter, just as the many birds this month are heralding spring and the warm months to come.
* I wrote the above article for the Montana Audubon Center April e-newsletter.