Spring Has Sprung!

On Tuesday morning as I dragged my sorry self out of bed something felt different.  I couldn’t quite pin it down. It wasn’t until as I juggled briefcase, purse, coffee cup and keys did it click. The red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) were BACK!  I heard a cacophony of conk-la-ree! song from the meadow.  Aside from the obvious prolonged daylight that results when the Northern hemisphere is once more beginning its lean towards the sun, the blackbird is one of my indicator animals for the onset of spring.  I usually equate them with the week of the spring equinox. This year, however, they are back about 2 weeks earlier than normal. Now I should probably qualify my statement above, because some avid birdwatcher will call my bluff and say that the red-winged blackbird is a winter visitor in this part of MA. That is indeed true for some subset of the population and if I wanted to go looking for one I would be likely to find one in a feedlot or crop field. It is their March return to the marshes and other wet areas that I refer to when I say they are “back.”

Male and Female Red-winged Blackbird

It’s not that the blackbird is unusual. In fact it is downright common although the colorful picture that the males make with their red-and-yellow shoulder badges is still pleasing to the eye. By comparison the female is nondescript and her behavior mirrors her camouflage of color.  The behavior of the male reminds me, on the other hand, of a college frat boy. One reason is because the male redwing is territorial and very aggressive in protecting its boundary. I have seen them attack and chase crows, hawks and even ospreys.  They also are very vocal and have been known to dive-bomb people when they approach active nesting areas. I can personally attest to this by the way and strongly recommend avoiding kayak excursions into an active territorial area. Another is their common tendency for polygamy where one territorial male redwing will have many female mates. Now guys, don’t take offense here, I am not casting one-sided aspersions. It turns out in the end that many of the young end up being sired by an individual other than the territorial male.

Male Red-winged Blackbird showing his colors

Redwings build their nests in a variety of habitats though a marsh, swamp, or wet meadow appears to be preferred. The female will weave an intricate nest platform out of cattail, rush, sedge, buttonbush, willow or other vegetation. They prefer this water-loving vegetation for the placement of the nest as well.

Typical Design of A Red-winged Blackbird Nest

Now, I have seen other signs that I equate with spring such as full thaw, fog, and burgeoning leaf buds. Then there is the sweet sound of the black-capped chickadee’s spring song of fee-bie or sweet-ie. I have also observed the gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) cutting and dropping the early buds and/or twigs from the silver maples (Acer saccharinum) in my neighborhood which means that the sap is running. The squirrel like us has a sweet tooth and when the sap begins to flow they clip the branches and buds to lick the sap from the cuts that they have made. So don’t forget to get out and enjoy the spring air, but watch out for falling branches.

By the Light of the Harvest Moon

Over the past week if you were fortunate enough to be outside after sunset and not get thoroughly eaten alive by vampiric winged creatures you may have observed the fiery red disc of the September “Harvest Moon.”  Traditionally, the Harvest Moon is the full moon closest to the Autumnal Equinox and more often than not it falls in the month of September. As the name implies it normally occurs during the peak agricultural harvest. It is also somewhat unique in that the time difference between moonrise on successive evenings around the equinox is shorter than usual (almost by half). Consequently, there is no long period of darkness between sunset and moonrise. This also applies to the October full moon which is often called the “Hunter’s Moon.”

Photo Credit: Ruth Daniel

Before the technological age of calendars, moon phases were used to track time including when to harvest crops and when to set trap-lines in preparation for the long winter ahead. Farmers in the Northern Hemisphere would look forward to the moonrise at this time of the year because it provided more evening light after sunset in which to engage in winter preparation activities.

Part of the Harvest Moon’s mystique is that it seems bigger and more colorful than other full moons. But, what appears to be a larger than normal size, is really just a trick of the eye as a result of the moon’s low-lying stature in the sky. The color is also just an illusion created by the atmospheric particles the light is being viewed through while the moon is lower on the horizon.

Photo Credit: David Haworth

I always find the rise of the Harvest Moon somewhat bittersweet.  On one hand I look forward to deep blue skies with warm afternoons which sometimes seem to instantaneously blend into chilled starlit nights and mist-filled morning meadows. I also revel in the smell of oak leaves as they rustle in the fall breeze or on the path under my feet. On the other hand, I become saddened by the disappearance of the flitting hummingbirds and the migrant birds I have become so accustom to. Silence now replaces the frequent vocalization of the predatory hawk and great blue heron, the song of the Eastern oriole and the squawk of the red-winged blackbird. This is when I acknowledge that too soon everything will again be buried under a cold blanket of snow. Even then I am still enamored by this time of year in New England and wouldn’t trade it for all of the sun and sand in the world. So, take into consideration the lyrics from folk/rock artist Neil Young and make some time to “go out and feel the night.”

But there’s a full moon risin’
Let’s go dancin’ in the light
We know where the music’s playin’
Let’s go out and feel the night.

– Harvest Moon by Neil Young