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The phoebe and other April arrivals

An eastern phoebe hunts for insects as it sits on a tree branch. (Photo by Mark Sparky Stensaas)

When I step outside this morning I realize that with the dawn temperature of nearly 50 degrees, I don't need the coat I wore in the morning walks of early April. In the calm conditions, I hear that others are up and active as well.

From the woods, a couple of gallinaceous birds are proclaiming territories and seeking mates in their own ways. A turkey gobbles loud while the ruffed grouse beats its wings from the drumming log. Several songbirds that have been back for a while are also singing here at this early hour: robins, song sparrows and juncos. Calling and feeding, a flock of redpolls is still at the feeders. I expect each day to be the last that I will see of these northern birds. Another boreal bird, the fox sparrow, has stopped at the feeder this week.

As I walk along the road in the sunrise, I pause at the swamp. Red-winged blackbirds are announcing ownership. I've only seen the males so far this spring, but I expect to see the females here soon. Out in the swamp, I watch a lone Canada goose. This one, a male, is keeping guard of a nest further back in this wetland where its mate is sitting. In the distance is the guttural call from a couple of sandhill cranes while a mourning dove sings its cooing song.

Continuing the walk, I hear the howling call of a loon from a nearby lake. I first heard this arrival on April 12 when this body of water was still about half-covered with ice. Going by a woods, I note the movements of two migrant woodpeckers, the yellow-bellied sapsucker and the flicker. Both are recent arrivals and by hammering on trees and calling, they let us know of their presence. Nearby, a diminutive bird flits about. A close look reveals a gray ruby-crowned kinglet. They always seem to arrive at about the same time that loons appear, at ice-out.

My walk takes me past a large roadside pond. Apparently, the night has been an active time for migrants and I see about a dozen kinds of waterfowl: Canada geese, mallards, ring-necked ducks, scaup, wigeon, bufflehead, wood ducks, blue-winged teal, gadwall, hooded mergansers and a pied-billed grebe. Meanwhile, a few swans fly over. Most do not remain to nest here, only stopping to rest and when they detect me, they quickly take flight.

It is interesting to note that when seen from a car, many of these waterfowl do not fly off, but when a walker comes by, they go. As the temperature rises a bit, the newly awakened frogs in the vernal ponds begin to call and court for the day. I discern wood frogs (first heard on April 10), chorus frogs and a few spring peepers. I think all were asleep when these ponds were frozen just a couple of weeks ago.

Returning to the yard, I see that a few other new migrants are active here. Looking at some movement among the tree branches, I find yellow-rumped warblers. Still not singing, they are feeding on insects. Always the first warbler to arrive, I noted it on April 10. Here, too, is a silent but active brown creeper climbing and feeding on tree trunks. And then I hear and see the bird that I've been looking for and now finally locate: the phoebe.

As bird features go, this bird is quite limited. It appears to be nothing more than a little gray-brown bird with white undersides. Adding something to this bland appearance, they frequently flick their tails up and down while sitting and will often give their wheezy "fee-bee" song. It is this non-melodious sound that gives this bird its name. Since there are not many feathery colorations on the 7-inch body, it is named after its call: phoebe.

Despite its plain appearance, I'm always glad to note the arrival of the phoebe. They are a species of flycatcher and the first of this group to arrive each spring, nearly always early to mid-April. Birds seem to accept human dwelling as their own. Over the years, I've seen them nest on the house and several outbuildings. Using mud and grasses, they attach the nest. Perhaps it is these sites that bring back these insect-eating birds so early in spring.

By nesting early they can have two broods, unlike most of the Northland birds. Unfortunately, they may also have to deal with cold spring conditions including snow, sleet, ice and rain. During such times they might need to go to wetland sites where insects are active. In the coming spring days we will soon have plenty of insects that the phoebes and several other of these avian migrants can feed upon.

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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