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Blackbird flocks pause during migration

A flock of grackles with a couple of red-winged blackbirds. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 2
A flock of grackles on a recent autumn day. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 2

November is well known for clouds, cooling and early darkness that leads to frozen ground, ice on lakes and usually a snow cover by the time we exit these 30 days. Though we will not settle into deep cold or snow until a bit later, the days of November are moving in that direction. And dealing with the coming cold, we are seeing the continuous preparations for winter going on among the local critters. Out in the yard, I've noticed less activity from chipmunks as they cache meals for their long denning time. Soon I'll not see any. They, like other ground squirrels, spend the cold season in a long sleep, some not awakening until next spring. Snowshoe hare are beginning to don their light-colored apparel that they live with during the snowy times. And bears are starting their long sleep.

At the birdfeeders I've been seeing chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers, all birds that will winter with us. But there is also an occasional visit from small flocks of purple finches and goldfinches. These flocks are not alone in the region. Migration is still going on among the feathery wildlife and many take their trip to the south with others of their kind.

Each day lately as I have been moving about, I have been seeing plenty of these flocks. Not all of the flocks are migrants; some birds find it advantageous for feeding and for safety to be with others. The crows, starlings, pigeons and gulls seen recently may well linger through the cold. But along the roadsides, groups of other birds are more likely to be those traveling to the south.

For the last couple of weeks, I have regularly noted flocks of small birds flying up along the roadsides as I passed by. Slowing down for a closer look, I could determine that what I'm seeing are flocks of brown tree sparrows and gray juncos. Both are types of sparrows and nest in the far north and are now seeking wintering grounds, mostly to our south. On another road, I watched as a flock of about a dozen snow buntings rose and circled, showing their white wing feathers, as they settled in a field. Another type of sparrow, these snow buntings, like their cousins, were also feeding on seeds in the open spaces.

Flocks of redpolls have appeared in the area. Though they will delight our winter days with their presence at birdfeeders, they are not there yet and now go into the alders and birches to feed. I've been observing a group of robins that have discovered an abundance of crabapples on a nearby tree. Other flocks of larger birds are flying over as well. Waterfowl like geese and swans may be in large numbers and often their loud calls will alert us to their presence. Some migrants, especially among the raptors — eagles, hawks and shrikes — may be moving about now, too, but they remain either alone or in small groups.

Frequently the flocking songbirds will give chipping notes as they travel and feed together. This may be a way of keeping contact with each other. Most are not as loud as they were in spring. And then there are the blackbirds.

Every year as we move through October and continue the AutWin time into November, I will pause to watch the large and loud flocks of these dark birds. Unlike many of the smaller songbirds, they normally will do much calling and maybe even some singing at this time. Such was the situation last week as I biked on a nearby trail. I heard and then saw the blackbirds. We call them blackbirds, but this is a generalized term for a group of birds.

Taking a closer look at these flocks, I have often seen several kinds present. The well-known red-winged blackbirds seem to always be here in these groups. So, too, I usually find the larger grackles, announcing their presence with noisy squawks. A bit more silent are the Brewer's and rusty blackbirds. At 9 inches, the blackbirds are larger that most of the traveling songbirds, but smaller than the 12-inch grackles.

The flocks that I was watching had alighted on trees near a cornfield. With the crop still not harvested, much seed remained in the field, to the flock's delight. The birds seemed to go back and forth to the field to feed and to the trees to rest and call. Among the sounds made, I could hear the songs of red-winged blackbirds and grackles that are usually associated with spring. Indeed, these sounds reminded me of the flocks of April. Restlessly, they moved about. The next day the flock was gone, another November migrant is headed south.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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