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American tree sparrow

The American tree sparrow is an early season migrant.

We have all suffered through a long drawn out winter in the Northern Plains. It takes some pretty resilient people to push through the icy cold weather day after day. The entire month of February went without a temperature reading above freezing. March wasn’t much better with the snow so deep the sun didn’t have a chance to being the nice spring thaws we come to expect this time of the year.

However, the end of March temperatures finally broke into the 40s, so the snow piles began to recede to create flowing streams as they meander across the landscape and create field water in the low-lying areas.

With the return of warmer temperatures here, field after field was covered with standing water. You would think it would be duck heaven, but they were nowhere to be found. Canada geese finally moved in a few weeks ago only to stand on the ice at their favorite haunts. I find it humorous in the spring to see the Canada geese standing on the ice staking claim to a territory knowing it will be a few weeks before the actual water appears. Maybe they should have given their winter luxuries more time.

The resident hawks are also pushing their way north. With most of South Dakota covered by water or snow, it was hard for them to get the thermals of warm air to migrate north. For this reason, many raptors follow the valley as the hillsides blow clear of snow, melt first and provide the needed lift to carry them north, but some chose the hard way cross country.

In my recent birding trip east of Bismarck, I checked all these open ponds with hopes of spotting migrating waterfowl. Many species of avifauna are past their normal migration windows. The first ducks to arrive are mallards and pintails. They were represented, but not in large numbers, and very few of the other arrivals, such as northern shoveler, gadwall, wigeon and green-winged teal,  were here. I did find a few of each, but I must wait another week to see many more of these friends.

I was surprised to see so many red-tailed hawks winging north given the 20 mph north winds they had to fight through that day. Such a cold wind but yet they pushed on knowing they are behind schedule. A golden eagle was a nice surprise to observe, as one bird was taking a rest on the leeward side of a towering cottonwood.

The most amusing experience was at Long Lake NWR headquarters. I was watching an American tree sparrow, which appeared to have no tail, scratching at the ground. Somewhere along the line, it must have had a close call with a cat. It seemed to be doing fine as it scratched away at the dirt. However, it and all the nearby friends immediately froze, not moving a muscle. They didn’t even twitch in the wind for minutes on end, until finally I saw the culprit, a northern shrike suddenly appeared. The robins and grackles in the area frantically zipped their way through cover as the shrike chased several of the large birds around as if playing tag on the school playground.

After several minutes of fun, the shrike disappeared behind a shelterbelt. Many minutes went by before the sparrows relaxed and resumed activity. I am always amazed at how nature seems to take care of itself — knowing danger was coming long before it appeared.

With the arrival of spring, hopefully you all will find a way to enjoy nature at its best.

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