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>Don & Lillian's Birding Journal


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Early Spring Migrants: Blackbirds, Herons, and Ducks

Early spring is a wonderful time to look for returning migrants. Check your bird feeders and also look at marshes, lakes, ponds, rivers and coastlines for these groups of birds.

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Male Red-wing
Blackbird, singing
Throughout the U.S., Red-winged Blackbirds begin returning from their wintering grounds in late February to early March. In all but the westernmost quarter of the country, they often congregate with flocks of larger Common Grackles, which migrate at the same time.

You may see large flocks of blackbirds perched together; Red-wings have all-black plumage and red wing patches, while grackles are recognized by their glossy purplish to bronze plumage, long tail, and pale eyes. In both species the males move north first, 1-3 weeks before females, to claim territory in marshy areas near water. They sing to advertise territory ownership, but in spring migration they will sing from any perch, including bird feeders.

Red-wings sing a rich, bubbling "Oka-LEEE" and Grackles give a squeaky "skr-LEEK". The chorus of both species singing together makes a welcome din—a sure sign that, at last, spring is just around the corner.

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Great Blue Heron
These elegant, long-legged waders head north as frozen ponds, rivers, and marshes begin to thaw, allowing them to hunt for fish swimming in the newly-open water.

There are three species that migrate early and are common across most of the U.S. There is the very large—almost 4 feet tall—Great Blue Heron with its slate-blue plumage, and two all-white herons: the Great Egret, which is almost as large as the Great Blue Heron and has a yellow bill and dark legs; and the Snowy Egret, which is about 2 feet tall with a black bill and legs and bright yellow feet.

Herons can be seen in almost any area with open water, stealthily stalking their prey and striking suddenly with a stab of their daggerlike bills. They may feed alone or in small groups; sometimes all three species can be seen feeding together. Keep an eye on a marsh, pond, or river near you for the arrival of these beautiful birds.

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Adult male
Northern Pintail
Like herons, ducks move north when frozen ponds, lakes, and rivers thaw. As they migrate, several different species often gather together in very large flocks, adding a coat of bright colors to a body of water. Some species dive underwater to feed on fish and aquatic animals, while others "dabble," poking their heads underwater while their tails point skyward; these species eat algae and vegetation. Male ducks are usually brightly colored, while the females come in subtle shades of brown and gray.

Some of the most widespread and common diving ducks are the Common, Red-breasted, and Hooded Mergansers, the Common Goldeneye, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Redhead, and Canvasback. The common dabblers are Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Gadwall, Mallard, and Wood Duck.

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