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Northland Nature: Another early morning bird sound

A male ruffed grouse drums on his home log, proclaiming territorial ownership and trying to attract a female. Photo by Larry Weber

Walking between 6 and 7 a.m. for the last couple of weeks has been a delight. Though cold and dark, the walks have been anything but disappointing. Many sounds of local critters have kept me listening as the stars overhead fade while the eastern sky brightens to tell of a new day.

The pattern has been mostly one of freezing temperatures at night (often in the 20s) with thawing in the daytime (usually in the 40s). The daylight hours have stretched from 12 at the time of the vernal equinox to be more than 13 now, and growing.

In the April woods, especially on north-facing hillsides, we may still find snow on the ground. While the vernal ponds are opening, the larger lakes have ice. Most of the rivers, with their flowing waters, are devoid of this cover. This interesting time is full of activities of early spring — seen and heard.

I regularly hear from regional coyotes as they yip in the predawn darkness. Also in the darkness at this time are a couple of calling owls — barred owls and great horned owls that have become companions.

These nocturnal predators of the woods speak of territorial sites, while the "peent" calls of a woodcock followed by a strange erratic flight, is in a courtship mode.

The ubiquitous crows and ravens are calling after grouping in family units as they scatter from roosts to forage for another day. Every-morning Canada geese honk as they disperse to locate open water or settle on the ice of wetlands where they nested last year.

Occasionally, I hear the loud blaring calls of another waterbird: trumpeter swans. They call, but continue to fly over.

Woodpeckers are still drumming. I first heard the hairy woodpecker back in January; now others, including the large and loud pileated woodpeckers, are resonating through these early hours.

As the days of April unfold, so have the variety of calls and songs. A red-winged blackbird gives its "conk-a-lee" song from a swamp. A mourning dove coos from a nearby hill while a flock of juncos twitter along the roadside. Also in flocks, newly arrived robins are calling to each other and soon I expect to hear their familiar songs here as well.

I have been watching a male turkey fan his tail and display to an audience of females during this past week. Until recently, he has been silent, but now the dawn is punctuated with a forest gobbler. And during the same walk, the guttural calls from overhead alerted me to the presence of a migrant sandhill crane.

It took several walks, but I finally heard the sound that I have been trying to hear each morning for the past week: the drumming of a ruffed grouse.

The morning was in the 20s, but that did not deter this bird. He climbed onto his drumming log in the darkness and set about proclaiming ownership and courtship is this location. Not using vocals as many of the other early morning avians do, he uses his wings beating against his chest to get the attention of other grouse. Males listen and leave his territory, while nearby, females move in closer.

This drumming will continue for weeks. It tells me that he and his kind made it through another winter that can be hard on them.

I'll continue the dawn walks and I'm sure the birds will continue their early-morning sounds. There will plenty more in numbers and variety as we go through April and enter May.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com. 

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