A harbinger of spring

Edit: This post was recently included in the 70th edition of I and the Bird, a blog carnival focusing on, you guessed it, birds. You can check out the full edition at Earth, Wind & Water.

First starling of spring

The northeast got another dump of snow last night. Although it was only just lightly starting in the evening before I went to bed, by the time I got up there was a good eight inches on the ground, and it was still snowing with some conviction.

Snowfall

It finally began to taper off mid-morning. I happened to be at my parents’ for a few days of renovation work, so I didn’t have to go anywhere in it, but when my dad got home he said the driving was pretty slick on the way in to work. I helped my mom put the horses out in the fields; she normally takes them herself two at a time, but the younger two are very lively and with the slippery conditions she wasn’t keen about having a prancing horse at the end of each arm.

The feeders were very active this morning. Virtually every bird in the surrounding woods had come out to fuel up at the convenient food source while it was snowing. Surprisingly, I didn’t see the big flocks of redpolls that usually turn up in this weather; they seem to have traded off with American Tree Sparrows, which were unusually abundant.

First starling of spring

Mom and I were looking out the window at the activity when she commented, “what’s that dark thing in the tree, just a knot? Or is it a starling?” Sure enough, it was a starling. This is a very notable sighting for us (worth writing in my newly-started Nature Calendar!). Because my parents are out in the country, their starlings don’t stick around over the winter. They depart in the fall with the rest of the migrants, and then come back again early in the spring to nest in the eaves of the house and garage. There’re usually at least three pairs nesting here every summer.

First starling of spring

They’re the true harbinger of spring here. They arrive earlier than any other migrant, even the Red-winged Blackbirds, which are early arrivals. Unfortunately I don’t have a solid record of arrival dates over recent years. Shoulda been keeping a calendar… I’d be interested to know where they all go in the winter, whether they just skip down to the nearby town, or if they migrate some distance away.

Starling sneaking up on doves

I love starlings, they’re one of my favourite birds. This is due in part to my years in university, living in town, where during the winter they, and the House Sparrows, were the only signs of life for months. Their chattery song is very lively and upbeat, even when there’s a foot of snow on the ground. They’ve got lots of character, and I personally think their glossy irridescence is beautiful.

They aren’t so universally welcomed, however. Note these Mourning Doves are keeping an eye on this individual as she clambers around the tree foraging for edible bits. Starlings have a well-earned reputation as being bullies of the bird world. Although this one was alone, they usually move around in flocks in the winter, shooing other birds away from feeders when they move in to hoard all the food. They are definitely hogs when it comes to the good stuff, and has driven many a backyard bird feeder to “snob feeding” (to coin a Julie Zickefoose term). We don’t mind them here, however, since they’re so few in number.

Too close for comfort

The starling gets a little too close for comfort and the dove decides to move to a different perch. Starlings are also known for kicking more passive birds from nesting boxes. One of their main victims is the Purple Martin, but they’ll also kick out bluebirds, tree swallows, woodpeckers (including the hefty Northern Flicker), and just about any other bird that happens to have chosen a box the starling desires.

Starling and Blue Jay

Only the birds of similar size will challenge the starlings, as this Blue Jay prepares to do here. Blue Jays themselves are charismatic, bold and pushy, both with other birds…

Starling and Blue Jays

…and between themselves. The starling waits her turn.

I’m pretty sure this one’s a female. Starlings are neat because, although males and females have essentially the same plumage, during the winter and subsequent breeding season the “cere”, the soft fleshy part at the base of their bill, changes colour. Appropriately, the males turn blueish, and the females turn pinkish. Males also have nice, long, glossy throat feathers that they puff out and show off when singing. Incidentally, the white speckles you see on winter birds wear off over the winter so that the black, irridescent “summer plumage” is really just the same feathers they had all winter, minus the white tips.

Starling and cardinal

A female cardinal gives the suet a once-over. Cardinals rarely visit the suet, instead preferring the fat-rich sunflower seeds. A starling’s beak isn’t as well-designed to cracking open the hard shells of seeds, and their summer diet is primarily insects and berries. In the winter, the suet is their favourite. It’s not such a problem here, with just a few birds, but if you live in town and have a whole flock of them descend on your feeder, their powerful beaks can hack it apart and gobble it up amazingly quickly.

Their scientific name is Sturnus vulgaris. Back when the species was named, “vulgar” meant “common”, rather than ugly or unpleasant as it is often used now, so the scientific name basically meant “Common Starling”. I’m sure there are a lot of North American bird watchers who would also identify with the word’s other meaning, however.

Sunny day

Late morning the sun came out, and it was a beautifully bright day. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much time to enjoy it, working as I was.

I’m using my mom’s computer to post this evening. Most of my photos were a little underexposed because of the overcast, snowy conditions this morning, so I had to brighten them up a tad on the computer. Unfortunately, I do most of my photo editing in a different program at home, and I can’t seem to make Photoshop accomplish the same things, even though I appear to be using the same or similar command. So, because I was shooting through a window, some of these may seem a little cloudy, or the snow overexposed now; I just couldn’t seem to fix it, for some reason!

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5 responses to “A harbinger of spring

  1. I wanted to thank you for recommending “Swampwalker’s Journal. I’ve been engrossed in it faor a few days now–the information so complete, like a text, but written with such beauty, an enjoyable experience.
    Thank you so much for passing it on!

    (and I’ve found some of what I’d hoped, but feared I’d never find!)

  2. No worries about your images, they compliment your prose very well. I like visiting your folks’ place, thanks.

  3. Such evocative photos, especially the first one – lovely.

  4. Beautiful pictures and narrative. I always learn something from your posts (usually more than one something!)

  5. themarvelousinnature

    @ Nina: I’d completely forgotten I’d recommended that! I’m so glad you’ve been enjoying it. The one bit in it that really stuck with me was the salamander outings in early spring. I’ve never had any luck, but I suspect my timing has always been off. Looks like you had good success, though!

    @ Trixie: Thanks for the compliment! I enjoy sharing the goings-on there, in the absence of a country place of my own.

    @ Azz: The snowfall was just beautiful, and I was pleased the flakes came out so well in the photos. That poor starling, I commented to my mom, what a day to come back on. It was probably sitting there reflecting on the wisdom of its decision.

    @ Beth: I’m glad you find the posts interesting and informative – that was my goal when I set the blog up, so it’s good to know I’m achieving it! Of course, that really sets a high precedent to maintain! :)

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