Spring was just around the corner this past Friday and then the storm clouds blew in and sent everyone searching for a roost. Staying home would have been warmer but the chance to scope out waterfowl heading through the region was too good an opportunity. Cool temperatures and a brisk wind made for perfect weather to hold all the flocks on whatever open water was available until spring beckons further north. The waterfowl viewing was great and our small group tallied 21 species of birds, mainly waterfowl, over the course of the morning. The thick flocks of Canada geese quickly gave way to mallards, redhead ducks, green-winged teals, and finally nearly 20 trumpeter swans. The day even included seeing an early-nesting pair of Canada geese on a muskrat den! The weather was chilly but without the temperature the birding would likely not have been quite so spectacular.
While sneaking up on the trumpeter swans in the photo our group was serenaded by a cluster of red winged blackbirds from the moment we parked. The cacophony of a cluster of blackbirds is truly mind boggling, until they all go quiet. A quick scan of the skies led us to identify the cause – a merlin, a small species of falcon, looking for a meal. Silence slowly gave way to tentative calls and then the return of the full chorus as the blackbirds recognized their trees sheltered them from the quick attack of the merlin. Their blissfulness returned as the merlin identified an easier meal in the cloud of blackbirds coming across the prairie and quickly launched itself at the unsuspecting cluster.
The open prairie is a hard place to make a life – and even harder to hide if you are the prey. Merlins are vicious little rockets that will patiently wait for a meal until a small songbird makes itself a target. A cloud of redwings seems like an easy target, until one tries to pick out an individual bird! The murmation of the cloud quickly became a pulsing of black. red, and quick flashes of light from first one, then two, and finally eight clusters of blackbirds that danced, shimmied, and wove its way over the prairie and wetland. While only a quick aerial acrobatics show, the dance of the predator and its prey is truly phenomenal to watch when the opportunity avails. These unscripted dances are spectacular and offer the opportunity to gain insight into the harshness of these beautiful landscapes we all too frequently view.
The next time spring is around the corner and the temperature dips take the opportunity to pull out the binoculars. Head to your favorite park near you to enjoy the flash of colors from migrating birds while the rest of the landscape waits for spring before righting itself and the shades of brown give way to hues of green.