Amateur Naturalist: Birds And Hints Of Spring Arriving

 An owl plucks its dinner from below the snow. Photo by Ann Colby

Los Alamos

Hints that spring is arriving are appearing in different ways with birds. One hint includes deer. Deer have been grazing on grasses and shrub leaves throughout the winter.

Smaller branches of trees have been bitten off and bark chewed away. This means that deer toward the end of winter are becoming hard pressed to find traditional food sources. They now will eat the seed from bird feeders. Perhaps bird feeders now should be called deer feeders.

Snow has accumulated deeply. A distinct tunnel may been going down into the snow near a bird feeder. Its size suggests that a gopher has been burrowing its way to the surface. But mid-winter is not the time for gophers to be moving about above the snow.

Gophers burrow below the snow but this does not always protect them from owls. Owls have exceptional hearing and vision. An owl can spot a faint shadow moving below the snow. The owl will plunge into the snow, capturing a meal.

So what else could be making a tunnel down into the snow? Some patient watching results in a surprise answer. A dark eyed junco bird suddenly pops out of the tunnel and flies away. It evidently has been searching for seed laying on the ground below the snow. Food is becoming scarce for birds as well as for deer.

A dark-eyed junco looks for food while standing next to snow. Photo by Robert Dryja

Ravens provide another hint. They can be seen flying about, apparently enjoying the cold air and sunshine. Rather than flying in pairs, they often are seen flying in groups of three. Two them fly close to one another while the third one follows, circling around them.

Three ravens flying together. Photo by Lee Rentz

Is this third raven a hatchling from last summer that is staying with parents through the winter? The groups of three will become groups of two when spring has clearly arrived. The third raven will have left, looking for a partner of its own.

The migration of geese provides a fourth hint that spring is approaching. Sandhill cranes and snow geese by the thousands start migrating from southern New Mexico northward in February. They fly above the canyons of the Rio Grande. Their honking is so loud that it echos up from the canyons. A person may look in vain down into a canyon, expecting to see geese below. Instead they are flying overhead.

Sandhill cranes in formation pass overhead, honking loudly into a canyon below. Photo by Bob Walker