Monday, February 25, 2008

Signs of Spring

A couple of signs of the onset of Spring from the bird world, one of them obvious (if you know where to look), and the other rather subtle...

The subtle one is the behavior of Western Meadowlarks (Sturnella neglecta). In the open grasslands and shrub-steppe of the western Great Basin where I spend a good deal of time, this species is a year-round resident. But all winter long, they are secretive and mostly silent, remaining on the ground where they are hidden by shrubs and grass. Rarely do they sing or call, and they fly only if a close approach requires them to flush. But within the past week, all that has changed. Now, they are conspicuous, and they intend to be so. These days, they seek out a fence post, phone wire, or the top of the tallest shrub or juniper tree, that their territorial and courtship songs might broadcast further. It is also now that their brilliant yellow breast with its contrasting black bib is displayed to greatest advantage in the rays of the morning sun. Spring is just around the corner when the Meadowlarks eschew their winter-long anonymity and proclaim to all the world their readiness to stake a claim and win a mate.

But around here the earliest nester in the bird world is the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), and some of these large birds have already been incubating for a week or more. They don't make their own nests, but use stick nests originally built by hawks, magpies, or even pack rats, or just platforms formed by the branching of a tree or an indentation in a cliff. I know of a number of such places frequently used by Great Horned Owls, and I'm looking forward to taking a couple of hours in the next few days to see how many are nesting this year.

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