February 21st – It Starts With A Drop

This young (note the pronounced black flecking on the breast and flanks) male (based on wing length) White-throated Sparrow was carrying a big fat load and may be an early migrant rather than an over-wintering bird. -NRF

A drop here, a drop there; a few coalesce and you have a tiny rivulet. Rivulets combine to form streams and streams merge into a river. And as drops continue to fall, the river grows and surges with amazing, overpowering force toward its destination. I could be describing the Grand River just beyond my backyard but I’m not. The description fits the avian northward migration that is just starting.

When I left for Malawi around January 20th I didn’t see ANY Horned Larks along any of the sideroads out here in rural Haldimand County – and I was looking because I was searching for Snow Buntings and the buntings often are cued into food sources by Horned Larks (which quite often find our bait sites before the buntings). But there weren’t any. When I got back, however, on February 14th the larks were a common sighting. Horned Larks are a very early migrant and they are on the move. A rivulet is forming. These will soon be joined by Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles – probably at the first mild snap. To the south of us the birds are straining to get going.

Another “drop” was quite likely a White-throated Sparrow that we caught and banded yesterday. I know that a few White-throats will overwinter in this area. But this bird had a big fat load and weighed over 30 grams – normally they would weigh in the low 20’s without any fat. It was a young male. Males tend to spend the Winter further north than females, the thinking being that they can get to the breeding area sooner with time to eke out a territory in order to attract the female. A young male (i.e., hatched just last year) will have to work hard to preserve a territory in the face of competition from older birds but if it can get there early it has a much better chance – it’s much more difficult to oust an ensconced territory holder no matter the age. So….I think this bird was on the move and just part of the vanguard of the huge movement to follow.

By the way, if you’re out looking at Horned Larks keep an eye out for the various subspecies that move through here. The two most common are the alpestris form (quite yellow around the head) and the praticola (or “prairie”) form which is quite pale.

But the important thing is that the birds are on the move and will be until early June. Ah the excitement!!!

Alpestris Horned Lark. -MMG

White/washed out praticola (or Prairie) subspecies of Horned Lark. -MMG

Bright yellow head marks this as an alpestris subspecies of Horned Lark. -MMG

Pale praticola Horned Lark. -MMG

This male Lapland Longspur is well on its way to acquiring its alternate or breeding plumage (note the pronounced black bib). -MMG

This retrapped American Tree Sparrow was originally banded on December 12, 2015. It was recaptured in 2016, ’17, and again this year. Ruthven is obviously its Winter home. -NRF

An American Tree Sparrow with abnormal white feathering in the greater and medial coverts. -NRF

An American Goldfinch with conjunctivitis in the right eye. This disease is often, but not always, fatal. The resulting impairment in visibility makes foraging and predator detection much more difficult. -NRF


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