For me, springtime is about fulfilling an urge. It’s a deep emotional thing that says, “Just go do it”. Think about all of the “firsts” we’ll experience soon. The first day we’ll wear shorts, the first time we’ll ride our bikes, the first night we’ll camp out. These collective urges are fulfilled by a very large percentage of our local population, quite often nearly simultaneously.
Animals, like humans, experience irrepressible urges through instincts. Many birds and animals are now gearing up for mating season. This urge to shack up and make babies surrounds us in the natural world each day.
Today I saw a magpie carrying a stick in its bill, presumably for nest building. The male magpie presents the female with a delivered stick, and she weaves it into the nest, or if it’s not quite what she was looking for, she simply discards it and has him bring another.
The conspicuous beach-ball sized magpie nest consists of woven twigs and limbs which form a sturdy platform covered by a dome shaped roof, often located in a cottonwood or a tall thick shrub. The entrance hole is just large enough for the magpies to fit through, and is often ringed by thorny branches which serve as a built in security system to deter predators such as a great-horned owl. This is an example of how instinct guides magpies to build their nests using similar construction methods usually in similar habitats.
Early each morning lately, I’ve been hearing the drumming of woodpeckers interspersed with clear loud singing of pine grosbeaks. Territories are now being established and mates attracted. Males with the best songs and the most dazzling plumage are often the winners.
I’ve also noticed an incredible amount of chasing going on between pine squirrels the last several days, accompanied by a lot of loud chattering and buzzing. Competing males chase one another in an attempt to mate with a ready female. She will mate with several partners until she becomes pregnant, somehow knowing this instinctively. These chases are fun to observe as the squirrels bound overland and sail between branches. So intense and raucous can the chase be that the pre-occupied squirrels may attract predators such as a pine marten or a goshawk and contrary to winning the mate, they are instead met with flesh-piercing tooth or talon.
This is a fantastic time of year to be out at sunset and to take a quiet stroll in a natural setting, preferably near a stream. Listen closely as night falls for the soft hooting of owls. This week I heard the familiar “Hoo, hoo-doo, wooo-hoo” of the great-horned owl, which is a very large owl characterized by long tufts of feathers atop its ears.
Owls have a keen sense of hearing with ears positioned slightly offset with different sized openings enabling them to pinpoint prey by sound. It’s not hard to imagine in the dark night, a wide-eyed owl perched turning its head sometimes nearly backwards, to locate little squeaks of a mouse, or the faint rustling of a foraging rabbit.
Some owls are active by day, such as the Northern pygmy owl, a tiny but agile owl that hunts songbirds. Pygmy owls appear round when perched, about the size of a tennis ball, only with a tail. This time of year, the female pygmy owl perches and sings, “po,po,po,po,po,po” at about the rate of a truck backup beeper, to attract a male to her. If you are lucky enough to observe a pygmy owl up close, watch when it shows the back of its head for a dark feather pattern that replicates another set of eyes.
Recently, while snowshoeing, I heard the tiny saw-whet owl which sings a similar, but faster song, “poo, poo, poo, poo, poo,” for about thirty seconds. The rythym is twice as fast as a pygmy owl, about two “poos” per second.
Yesterday while driving I saw a red-tailed hawk near Eagle-Vail performing an interesting flight display, tucking its wings tightly to its sides, free falling, then swooping back up. When observing birds, ask yourself, “what are they doing”? Usually they’re doing something practical like hunting, foraging, attracting a mate, or nest-building.
These swooping rituals are common in hawks and eagles and get the juices flowing between mates. It is a great time of year to witness golden eagles displaying near their nest site swooping and gliding in a figure-eight pattern while calling to each other. Even though goldens mate for life, the mating ritual cannot be denied.
Visit a river this time of year to hear the beautiful melodic song of the American dipper rising from the water and echoing off of the boulders and riverbanks. Close observation may reveal a dipping display on a rock near water-level with the flashing of white eyelids as communication between males and females.
A bird-watching outing last week revealed the presence of canyon wrens in areas upstream from Burns along the Colorado River Road. Visit the canyon along catamount creek to hear the high to low descending musical scale of the canyon wren, “weep, weep, weep, weep, weep.”
Like other wrens, the canyon wren sports a thin slightly down-curved bill and feeds primarily on insects. The canyon wren differs from other wrens in that it has a flattened skull that enables it to insert its head deeply into a crevice between rocks as it forages for insects and spiders on vertical canyon walls.
Of course, it is possible to go through life and not notice any of these springtime rituals mentioned. However, even hearing and recognizing the first robin song of the year, or listening to the inspiring flute-like melody of a Townsend’s solitaire emanating from the tip-top of a juniper can make us feel a connection to these new beginnings that we call springtime.