Today we had snow. I had really been enjoying the mild weather, but of course it is still early March, and the balmy temperatures can’t last. We have a month of ups and downs ahead of us before we settle into mostly springtime weather (and even then, we still have the possibility of snow right into May). There’s an inch of the white stuff on our lawn now, after it started falling yesterday evening and finally tapered off this morning.
But yesterday, the lawn was bare but for a few randomly-scattered patches of crusty snow. As I was in the kitchen making myself some tea after coming in from our hike with Raven yesterday, I glanced out the window and noticed some movement on the open ground: a robin, scouting for invertebrates groggy and sluggish from the warming sun. And then another, a short distance away. And a third. And finally a fourth, kicking around the detritus on the forest floor.
It’s hard to know for certain if these are migrants, returning with the first signs of spring. Some robins do spend the winter in our frozen north, feeding on icy berries over the cold months, while invertebrates are hard to find. They tend to move about in moderate-sized groups; I noticed a group of about 14 once or twice in our general area over the winter. Others will fly south, some just to the northern states, others might carry on a bit further. Although they’re traditionally thought of as a sign of spring, the bird to watch for, in actuality other migrants such as blackbirds or Killdeer often return before the robins do. I don’t know why robins have come to be associated as a sign of spring – perhaps because by the time they do arrive it’s much more likely that spring is just around the corner? Or perhaps because they are often seen in urban environments, on lawns and in parks, where blackbirds are not.
These were the first ones I’ve seen on our property since the fall. Probably drawn there by the open lawn, since there are no berry bushes on or around our home (if we plan to stay here a while I’ll be sure to plant some, however). Mostly males, with their crisp gray back, jet black head, and rich orange-red belly, although Dan thought he spotted a female amongst the group (which would be more subdued in browner tones). Among migrant robins, males are the first to return in the spring, with females following a week or two later, but both males and females may choose to overwinter in the north. Since these were males, neither possibility can really be ruled out, although it’s still a bit early for migrant females.
I don’t know that the earthworms would be active yet; it was warm, but not that warm, or at least not for long enough to warm the earth up considerably. I noticed most of the robins were checking under the leaves, perhaps for invertebrates that had tucked themselves into crevices in the earth. They would pick the leaves up with their beaks and toss them to one side. They are very proficient at this, able to throw the leaf a good foot or more away. It was slightly overcast by then, and too dark to get a good photo of their leaf-throwing, unfortunately, but you can see to the right of the bird the leaf that he’s just thrown. It was hard to tell just how much they were finding through this effort, but they kept at it.
There was at least one robin who did seem to be hunting for earthworms, or at least wasn’t checking out the leaf litter. Robins on a lawn typically tend to run a number of steps and then pause to cock their head at the ground. While it might look like they’re tipping their ear to listen to what’s going on down there, experiments have shown that robins hunt by sight, not by sound, and the tipping of the head is simply the bird’s way of getting a better view of the ground. Because their eyes are set at the sides of their head, not the front, they don’t have straight-forward vision the way we do, and in order to focus in on a particular object the bird needs to turn its head and look out one eye or the other.
Based on the fresh, crisp wing feathers on this bird, I would guess it to be an adult male (an after-second year in banding terms), meaning that 2009 is at least his third calendar year – he was hatched in 2007 or earlier. Because of the patterns of moult in the different age groups, a second-year bird, hatched last summer, would be showing more wear to its wing feathers, and they would probably also be brownish, slightly faded. In robins the difference can sometimes be quite obvious, particularly as you get closer to summer.
I didn’t notice this till blowing up the photo on the computer, but it looks like when the bird replaced its tail last (which would have been “scheduled” for late last summer, or may have been replaced over the winter if he’d lost some feathers to a close run-in) the waxy sheath that surrounds the feather at its base as it grows wasn’t removed. Most of the time birds will preen these waxy sheaths off, because they start to itch, but it looks like this guy got it halfway off the feather and then forgot about it when it stopped being a problem.
They were gone again today, the robins. There was nowhere for them to forage, the lawn covered up again by the recent snowfall. Off in search of berry bushes, I imagine. But that’s alright, it won’t be too long before they return again – spring is, I’m sure, just around the corner.