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Harriers migrate through in early April

A female northern harrier soars overhead. (Photo by Larry Weber)

In early April we see a more active trend and movement with the spring migrants. The songbirds that arrived here in March from their southern winter are still with us. In the swamps we may hear the songs of red-winged blackbirds. In our yards and along the roads, robins, bluebirds, mourning doves and grackles are vocal. These and the numerous finches and sparrows are quite obvious as they feed and scatter through our parks, yards and roadsides.

It is not uncommon to see a flock of juncos fly up as we drive by on roads at this time. But the flight of songbirds continues and now in April, we may note the arrival of a couple of migrant woodpeckers: yellow-bellied sapsuckers and flickers. While many of the local woodpeckers are with us all winter, these two kinds fly to the south. Their return is often marked by calls and drumming, sometimes on or near our houses.

A few insect eaters are starting to return as well. The bulk of insect-eating birds will not arrive for a few more weeks. But in early April the first flycatchers, phoebes, call and hunt available insects.

Also we're likely to see the first warbler, the yellow-rumped warbler, and the first swallow, the tree swallow. Along with the warming, thawing and melting happening now, insects are moving and are more common on these spring days.

As the rivers open and the ice recedes from ponds, swamps and eventually lakes, we'll see the water birds in their spring attire. Canada geese, trumpeter and tundra swans, mergansers, grebes, cormorants, maybe early pelicans, loons and various ducks — up to about 10 kinds — will be in these waters. It is the ducks that wear the colorful spring coats more than other waterfowl.

At the shoreline are some newly arrived wading birds. Probably the most notable and easiest to see are the great blue herons, but they are not alone. Sandhill cranes that have become more common in recent years are here, too, or in the nearby fields. It is now also that we can see the first shorebirds in these wet places. Killdeer, snipes, woodcocks and yellowlegs stop here to feed. With all of this happening with waterbirds and songbirds, it's easy to overlook the others.

Among the non-migrants, ruffed grouse usually are drumming on the logs in early April. The barred and great horned owls that stayed here for the winter are actively calling and nesting. Most of the rest of the raptors, besides the owls, that spend the summer with us are migrants and spend their winters feeding on prey in the states to the south of us. And now is the time to see their return.

Bald eagles and red-tailed hawks have been northing already for several weeks and it is not unusual to see them pass by. Often the eagles stop at open water sites for a fish meal. Also the smaller kestrels, merlin and sharp-shinned hawks are in the region. It seems like my first sight of a kestrel each year is one sitting on a utility wire along the roads. The sharp-shinned hawks and merlins are more likely to be in the woods. Another large one, the turkey vulture, slowly soars on its way north, seeking carrion along the way.

One other raptor that falls into its own category, the northern harrier, is migrating now, too. Harriers, formerly called marsh hawks, are regular migrants in the Northland. As midsize raptors, they are larger than the sharp-shinned hawks, kestrels and merlins, but smaller than the red-tailed hawks, eagles and turkey vultures. While the males are mostly white, the females are brown above and white with brown streaks beneath. Both carry a white rump patch at the base of the long tail.

Winter is spent in the fields and wetlands of the southern states, where they do their style of hunting that differs from most other raptors. Instead of perching or flying fast after prey, harriers fly low and slow over the open spaces. Here in their circling flight, they use superb eyesight and hearing to find frogs, birds and small mammals. Their hearing may be almost as good as that of owls.

Mice seem to be a big part of their diet as they move north over the fields and swamps that have just recently emerged from the snow cover. I have heard harriers called "mouse hawks." Unlike most other raptors, northern harriers are so much part of their field and wetland scene of the open spaces that they even nest in these sites. Nests are on or near the ground.

Whether it is the songbirds, the waterbirds, the ruffed grouse drumming or the raptors, including northern harriers, the birds of April give us something new to look for each day in this springing month.

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.

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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