Sound + Vision of Spring

Sound + Vision of Spring

T. S. Eliot wrote in The Wasteland, that “April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.”

T.S. Eliot "Spring foe"?

T.S. Eliot “Spring foe”?

Obviously, never having visited Michigan (he was born and raised in St. Louis, MO) he continues, “Winter kept us warm, covering/ Earth in forgetful snow, feeding/ A little life with dried tubers.”  He’s been dead for 50 years and didn’t have to contend with this year’s February (see last month’s post).

That’s all behind us now, at least in this corner of Michigan and much of the Midwest.  Plants are beginning to sprout, maple syrup season is over, and even the occasional insect can be spotted.

Usually people in Michigan identify the American robin (turdus migratorius–what an unfortunate appellation)

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

with the arrival of spring.  Not only does Michigan lose points for making our state bird one that Wisconsin and Connecticut also claim (the northern cardinal appears to be the most popular state bird), but not all robins leave the state in the fall.  Some stay around, somehow managing to find food through the winter.

There has been a movement over the last few decades to make the Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii), a bird that only breeds in northern lower Michigan, the state bird, but too many people complain that politicians ought to find better things to do with their time than designate state animals, rocks, and books.

Kirtland's warbler image courtesy of Creative Commons

Kirtland’s warbler image courtesy of Creative Commons

So, for now, we’re stuck with the ordinary robin.

For me, though, the harbinger of spring is the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus).  Yes, it’s a common enough sight and sound in wetlands (even saltwater marshes) around the country, but they aren’t found in Michigan in winter.

Unlike the lazy robin, they hightail it south for open water and abundant food.  Well, not too far south, some are found year round in Ohio.

Some of the more sophisticated birds like to winter in Mexico.  The ones who can afford it, do, I suppose.

If you’re not sure what one looks like, all you need to do to spot the male is to look for a black bird, not quite as large as a blue jay, but certainly larger than a sparrow.  OK, I guess they are robin-sized.

But this isn’t one:

This non-native (image) is courtesy of Creative Commons and Torange.US

Image courtesy of Creative Commons and Torange.US

This bastard The starling isn’t even native to North America, thanks to a Shakespeare lover it was introduced in Central Park in New York in the 19th century and now they gobble up native birds’ food.

This black bird is also not red-winged, but it is native:

Grackle image courtesy of

Grackle image courtesy of

The common grackle is larger than the red-winged blackbird and is widespread as well.



The red-winged blackbird is as it’s name claims, a black bird with a scarlet and yellow shoulder patch on it’s wings.  That’s the male, anyway.  The female is brown and has field markings similar to a song sparrow.

Besides the instant sunshine the bird brings with its appearance, is the varied musical call the male sings.

Watch this beautifully shot short video by Lang Elliot:

I don’t know about you, but that bird’s call is magical to me and instantly brings spring to mind.

Lastly, spring is also here when the ground is brown, bare, and soggy, yet it smells of “the dearest freshness deep down things” to quote my favorite Jesuit poet.  There’s that earthy smell that is heaved into my nostrils.  And it’s not a bad smell at all.

I can throw the windows open, blow out winter’s dust, and thrill to the call of boy blackbirds and smell the fecund earth.

What’s spring like in your neighborhood?


Bird update

I’m not reporting on squirrels (what kinds have you seen?) but I am reporting a sighting of five bluebirds, several chickadees, and titmice hanging around my second backyard. Additionally, sandhill cranes were still migrating south–eleven of them.
Speaking of birds, check out this short film on crows.

Caller ID?

courtesy commons wikimedia

courtesy commons wikimedia

Surely you’ve heard plenty of birds calling by now. Here in SE Michigan, plenty of spring species have arrived: red-winged blackbirds, turkey vultures, great blue herons, goldfinches, house finches, and more than I can currently recount.

Have you taken time to listen to the calls? Can you identify the singers? I’ve noticed more about robin calls this spring then I had before. I’ve also had the pleasure of hearing more than the original nesting pair of red-winged blackbirds in my neighborhood–there have to be at least three pair now. I find their calling the most interesting out of the birds in my neighborhood. What’s your favorite birdsong?

I’ve found a few interesting tools that help bring birds in closer for viewing, or at least create some interaction between them and me. One are various kinds of bird calls. I bought a crow call which works well as I’ve brought in some crows twice now with it. Supposedly it works with wild turkeys too, but I haven’t tried it that way at all. For my birthday this month I received a hawk call and an owl call. I haven’t been able to use them to any effect yet, but you can be sure I’ll be trying this summer. I can do a decent Eastern screech owl call without any artificial aids, but my barred owl call might use the help from the plastic call.

Another interesting item I’ve come across is this book. I haven’t finished reading it, but so far I’m impressed simply by the author’s writing style. Dunne uses humor in a genre that tends to be very SERIOUS, full of gravitas, as this is NATURE we’re talking about, we can’t be joking. As I mentioned I haven’t finished it yet, but it looks helpful and is wonderfully readable.

So, if you haven’t paid attention to the warnings, flirtation, and other bird chatter happening around you, get outside, sit still and enjoy the concert.

Who’s calling, please?

While SE Michigan still appears in various hues of brown, there is more sunlight, and the temperatures are creeping upward.  The maples and a few other trees have buds for fingernails, and you see green spikes shooting up here and there; one might even spot irises showing off.  These all foreshadow the show that is to come over the next month, month-and-a-half.

Increasingly, the bird song should include voices you haven’t heard in some time (again, that would depend on your region–do you live somewhere birds don’t leave?  I don’t think that happens, but correct my ignorance.)  Therefore, this month’s challenge is an audible challenge.

Before I lay down the parameters of the challenge let me offer a little lesson.  Why do birds sing anyway?  Generally, it’s for two reasons: 1) males are trying to attract a mate or 2) males are defending their territory.  Some birds spend as much as 70% of their day singing–which for them is a good use of their time.  If you aren’t a professional singer, then 70% of your day spent signing might be counter-productive, not to mention annoying to your family or friends.  Some birds “sing” not with their whistles and calls, but like many woodpeckers with the tapping of their beaks.  And a fewer still use the sound their wings produce to “sing.”

So, when you hear birdsong, you may be near some amorous conversation OR some one is telling someone  else to KEEP OUT!

April’s challenge is this: go outside, find a spot to stand or sit for some time and listen.  Can you identify the bird(s) calling?  Is there a variety to the song–birdsong for the same species has regional variations–or is it just a note or two?  How many different bird songs are happening?  Can you spot the birds singing and is the target of the song visible?

Try it out.  Please, leave comments below about what you’ve heard and seen.IMG_4540 IMG_4380  A note on the photos: I wish these were taken in my backyard.  Alas.  These are my photos, though and were taken in Michigan.

Challenge #6 Winter: answered

We had a rather short, but warm stretch this week with a record breaking day at 60 degrees, but the snow and cold are comfortably ensconced once again.  The regular winter inhabitants in these parts of SE Michigan include tufted titmice, juncos, nuthatches, cardinals, hairy, downy, and red-breasted woodpeckers, fox and gray squirrels, and probably rabbits and raccoons, but I haven’t spotted any of those recently.  The cold limits the variety, but it’s still there, for those with eyes to see.  Have your oaks and beech trees lost their last shreds of leafy dignity?  My beech still clings to a few.  What’s winter like where you live?