Thoughts of Spring


(This 841st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 4, 2007.)


Common Snipe Painting by Allan Brooks


Spring is finally here.


Our yard retains many features of a clear-cut. Our four big trees had to be removed and holes remain not only where roots were dug out but also where larger branches fell many feet and drilled into the ground. The lawn, where not covered by sawdust, has gone in one week from a swamp to a desert, deep cracks running in all directions. Rabbits, however, came through the winter in fine fettle. They should have, because they have lived well off Doris's garden. I would not want to be one of those chubby little bunnies if she caught it.


The Hamburg census of migrating raptors again reports a huge plurality of turkey vultures. They come through by the hundreds. As I write with the migration only half complete, over 8500 have been recorded. The count of the next most common raptor observed, red-tailed hawk, is only about 850. These big vultures combine close-up ugliness with distant grace. Their featherless heads are indeed most unattractive but sailing overhead, their wings inclined upward, those heads are no longer apparent and they are handsome birds.


Two early spring, yellow flowers are already in evidence. I have been finding roadside patches of coltsfoot, easily mistaken for dandelions but with asparagus-like stems. And the woodlands are beginning to fill in with lesser celandine, a ground cover with bright eight-petal yellow flowers. Both are aliens but the coltsfoot remains largely restricted to disturbed areas. The celandine, on the other hand, is taking over our forest floors and displacing native plants.


Our delightful little chipping sparrows are back. I hear their cheerful chattering calls when I walk to the local grocery store. Sometimes they sing from the ground but equally often from treetops, especially from the tops of spruces. They have a bright rufous cap over a white eyeline.


Chipping sparrows will stay here all summer. But soon they will be joined briefly by my favorite of all the sparrows, the white-crowned sparrow. I'm not talking here about the white-throated sparrow, another migrant which briefly serenades us with its clearly whistled, "Dear, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada" or, as chauvinists prefer it, "Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody." The white-throats may be better singers, but they are slouches next to the handsome white-crowns. Whenever I see a white-crowned sparrow, I am reminded of my mother telling me to sit up straight. Indeed, they have perfect upright posture.


Most are gone now, but this year brought more fox sparrows to this area than in any year I can remember. Typical was the group of eight Jerry Lazarczyk and I found feeding along a road near West Valley. Fox sparrows are like bigger, brighter-colored song sparrows.


Of all the dabbling ducks, the hardest for me to find nowadays are teal. Sixty years ago blue-winged teal were among the most common of ducks. (At that time black ducks were as common as mallards too.) For some reason unknown to me and to the wildlife specialists I have asked, teal populations have declined severely. Last week Mike Galas and I looked for both species at Iroquois with no luck until finally we were scanning the shorebird flats near the Cayuga Pool. Just as I found a blue-winged teal, Mike called out, "Green-winged teal." I thought at first that one of us had misidentified the birds but, sure enough, a pair of each species swam a few yards apart among the cattails.


When I was an eleven-year old just beginning my love affair with birds, my family lived in a Rochester suburb with an extensive open field behind our house. That spring I heard a soft, musical "who-who-who-who-who" sound coming from the sky over that field. I could not locate the source until finally I saw a bird flying so high that it was almost out of sight. Only later I learned that the bird was a snipe. Yes, it was the real bird better known to campers as the elusive prey sought, sometimes with a banana and a spear, on snipe-hunts. That who-ing is made by the bird's wings. For a long time I could not hear that lovely sound of spring, but this year, now wearing hearing aides, I have been listening to this lovely sound once again.-- Gerry Rising