Friday, September 9, 2011

Signs of the seasons

Sometimes I like to check out the "stats" feature of blogger and see what kind of hits my blog is getting. It's especially interesting to see the query someone made that led them to my humble posts. I often find myself thinking, "That's a good one -- I wish I actually had that information on here!"

For example, one query recently asked, "What bird is a harbinger of fall?" Since I am always making notes to myself about the first time or the last time I see a particular species or hear their song or see a certain plant, I think that's an interesting question.

Obviously, my answer is entirely dependent upon my particular locale. All of the statements and observations I am about to make are applicable to my experience in central Illinois. It goes without saying that the birds of, say, Cyprus or Baja California or some Arctic land will probably be different!

Strangely enough, I don't have an exact species of bird that I would call the "harbinger of fall." Winter, yes--the dark-eyed junco. And spring--the red-winged blackbird. (A lot of people would probably root for the American robin, but since so many overwinter here, and the blackbirds show up a week or two earlier, I vote for the blackbird.) For summer, I would vote for the ruby-throated hummingbird.

But fall? Personally, I know that fall is on its way more from the behavior of birds than their arrival. Many species fall silent. The grackles and starlings form enormous flocks. Swallows group up, then disappear. All of this tells me, even if I lost my calendar, that the autumn is fast approaching

But more than anything else, the starlings put their stars on. They lose their shimmery summer plumage and put on a coat of shiny white flecks--the "star" in starling. Despite being invasive nuisance-birds in North America, starlings in winter can be a surprise if you look closely; some non-birders ask what lovely species it is.

That simple question got me thinking, and here is A Year in Birds According to the Crow; or how to know your season:

Mid-winter -- the bald eagles appear along the river ways in huge numbers. Also a great time to go look for wintering owls, not that I am ever lucky enough to see one of those!

Late winter -- if you find an open stretch of water, it's bound to have some ducks on it. Enjoy! And the cardinals start to sing.

Early spring -- the return of the red-winged blackbirds and grackles! Also, check out those migrating sparrows.

Mid-spring -- the swallows return.

The Height of Spring -- warblers, warbler everywhere. Also the hummingbirds appear, and all the breeding birds have arrived.

Early summer -- the woods and prairies burst with song as all the summer residents make their nests and sing for their territories. I especially love the grasslands, with the buzzy chorus of dickcissels, grasshopper sparrows, sedge wrens, all overlaid with the plaintive song of the meadowlark. But deep in the woods, the ethereal cry of the wood thrush has to be the most beautiful sound on the planet.

Mid summer -- OK, it's hot and nasty now, but baby birds are everywhere.

Late summer -- the blackbirds are gone. Everyone else stops singing. For a while, the birding really sucks.

Early fall -- the starlings put their stars on. Fall warblers start to trickle though.

Late fall -- migrating sparrows. The juncos come down for the winter. The ducks come through on their way back south.

And back to winter. That's the good thing about birding. There's always something to look forward to.

What bird do you consider to be the harbinger of fall? Or any other season?


  1. The bird that I consider to be a harbinger of fall are the Canada Geese. I am so glad when the geese return in the spring, but so sad when they leave in the fall.

  2. Here in Illinois, there are flocks of Canada geese that stick around all winter, so that's a good example of how the harbingers differ by locality. But I remember once in late winter, seeing what looked like thousands of them clustered along the Illinois River, probably on their way north, and it was literally awesome -- as in, I was struck with awe.