By Jim Gilbert
A warm March day with south winds brings flocks of male red-winged blackbirds into southern Minnesota.
Here in the Waconia area, I first spotted these harbingers of spring on March 28 this year.
Last year it was March 10 that they first returned and sang their trilled “o-ka-leee” songs in wetlands. Their song is music to our winter-weary ears and a very welcome spring sign.
The glossy black males have bright red shoulder patches with a light yellow border. For these males it’s serious business to return before the females and stake out claims in marshes and along reedy edges of lakes by singing and flashing red from the tops of surrounding vegetation, often cattails.
The females arrive a few weeks later. They’re sparrow-like birds with white eyebrows but otherwise brown above and streaked with brown below. The drab colors will camouflage the female when she sits quietly on her nest.
One of the most widespread and numerous birds in Minnesota, red-wings winter in southern states, sometimes gathering in large flocks along with grackles and cowbirds. But with the first hint of spring, mature males head north.
It takes young males two years to become black and to develop the striking red shoulder patches; without the bright colors, the first-year males are unable to win territories or brides and so they gather in flocks and wait for next year. Red-wings feed during the day and rest at night. Their food consists of seeds, berries, insects and spiders. They walk on the ground when searching for food.
What’s happening outdoors now?
Maple syrup producers are looking for some quality sap runs. Ice is melting, and the last parches of snow are disappearing.
It’s good to hear the red-wings trilling and Canada geese honking in the wetlands. Tundra swans migrate over in big Vs. Wood ducks, eastern phoebes, song sparrows and tree swallows are migrants that have been returning since the end of March. Eastern bluebirds check-out nesting boxes.
On April 11 a year ago
We had a clear sky all day and a temperature high of 54 degrees and a low of 27 degrees.
Woodland wildflowers blooming included bloodroot, Dutchman’s-breeches, purple violet and large-flowered bellwort. Trees such as native basswoods, sugar maples and bur oaks had small to medium-size leaves. The common purple lilac and some crabapple trees, plus daffodils, tulips and hyacinths were flowering nicely and very showy.
We continued to run nearly a month early in the unfolding of spring, especially noticed in plant development.
All Minnesota lakes were ice-free. The ice had gone out March 18 on Lake Waconia and Winsted Lake, Mille Lacs Lake on March 26, and Lake of the Woods on April 8.