Speaking of Nature: And so it begins — The return of the season’s first migrants

By BILL DANIELSON

Published: 02-26-2023 10:44 PM

One of the things I really like about the beginning of any calendar year is the delightful process of beginning new lists. I keep track of all sorts of things, from bird sightings, to temperature readings, to the blooming dates of flowers, but the one that I find the most irresistible is the list of first arrivals. This has become so ingrained in my annual process that my website has an entire page dedicated to the first sightings of the year. January is usually very quiet, but things always get rolling in February and it is always the same species that arrive first.

The species that I am speaking of are the blackbirds; specifically the brown-headed cowbird, the red-winged blackbird and the common grackle. Year after year you can rely on them to be the first to arrive, with the cowbirds usually making the first appearance. This is usually a group of 4-8 birds that almost seem like they are lost and they usually hang around with the local mourning doves. Like the doves, cowbirds are highly gregarious birds that like to travel in flocks and it seems not to always matter who is in the flock.

But the real “Big Day” is always that day when the red-winged blackbirds appear en masse. This year it all went down on Feb. 21. On Saturday, Feb. 18, I conformed to my normal routine of coffee, birdseed and then observations at the kitchen window. It was another “normal” morning with very little difference from every other day in February. Sparrows, juncos, cardinals, jays, chickadees and all of the other “regulars” were in attendance in relatively small numbers. Predictable, but a little monotonous after a while.

I headed down to my brother-in-laws house in the suburbs north of New York City for a birthday weekend (which was outstanding, by the way) and I was back at home on the evening of Feb. 20; too late in the evening for there to be any birds around. The next morning, however, the difference in the landscape was inescapable. All of the birds were singing and even the woodpeckers had joined in with their territorial drumming. The songs of cardinals, mourning doves, tufted titmice and white-breasted nuthatches all rang across the meadow like wondrous bells, but the real attention-grabber was the singing of red-winged blackbirds. One day there were none and then a couple days later there was a flock of over 30 individuals.

Technically, the species made its first appearance on Feb. 11, but that was just a single bird that seemed to be in the vanguard; scouting out conditions for the massive wave that was about to arrive. I was stuck at work for the following week, so I had no way of monitoring that lone bird’s presence, but the lack of blackbirds on Feb. 18 suggested that no one was around. Thus, I stand by my observation on Feb. 21 as the “Big Day.”

What is interesting is the fact that even in my humble way, I have managed to collect some data that may show the effects of climate change on the migratory movements of red-winged blackbirds. Before I present this data I need to make sure that we all understand that my data is biased by the fact that, sadly, I am not a professional ornithologist. I am forced to work on weekdays just like almost everyone else out there and as a result I most certainly miss things. That being said, here’s what I’ve got:

From 2009 to 2016 my records show the first arrival dates of red-winged blackbirds spread across January, February and March. Specifically, the first arrivals were noted once in January, twice in February and five times in March over that 8-year period. My data sheets only go back to 2009 and I can only accommodate eight columns for years on the form, which is why the data is broken up this way.

The next data sheet covers the years from 2017 to 2023. During this 7-year period I have noted the first arrival dates for red-winged blackbirds twice in January, four times in February and only once in March. The data is minimal, but it is also the best that I have and it seems to suggest that red-winged blackbirds are arriving earlier than they used to. I know that 50 years worth of data collected by people who were paid to pay attention to these sorts of things would be better and, luckily, that sort of data exists.

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The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has been collecting data from citizen scientists for years. You can download an app called “eBird” onto your phone and you can contribute to the scientific observation of birds whenever you want. The key is to make sure that you stay honest about the birds that you observe and that you only record species that you are absolutely certain about for sight and sound. Less data that is 100% accurate is far more valuable than extra data that is a little sketchy.

So open your eyes and keep your ear peeled for any hints of red-winged blackbirds. Those of you living at lower elevations may have seen them already, while those at higher elevations might notice a slight delay in their arrival. And, if you want to participate in the actual science of birding, try recording your observations for Cornell. It is actually a lot of fun.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook. 

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