Monday, May 5, 2008

Harbinger? Hardly. Well, sort of.

It’s almost a fact in northeastern North American popular culture that the first sighting of an American Robin is the definitive sign of spring. I suppose it’s certainly up there as a harbinger, but for me as a kid it was outranked by the Eastern Meadowlarks singing in the hydro field on the way to school, or the Eastern Kingbirds perching on the pylons.

American Robins in late January, hanging out in the neighbourhood.

Here, in the British Columbian ecoprovince known as The Georgia Depression (dibs as name for a blues band and the yellow area on this map), the extreme southern coastal area and eastern Vancouver Island, avian harbingers of spring include Rufous Hummingbirds (Ides of March), Violet-green and Tree Swallows (end of March). Robins are not considered, because they spend the winter here in large numbers. They move about, being chased by inclement weather and fluctuating food-stuff availability, often in large flocks.

Three migrant American Robins in the park, one perched on a mole hill.

However, if you go to a mixed forest-field habitat, or even an urban park containing a good number of mature trees in late April- early May, i.e., now, you will sure see a lot more robins than you did a fortnight ago. These are the birds that wintered in California, Oregon and Washington, and they account for an increase in the Robin population that peaks about now, before they and many of those that only winter here continue north. I believe you can tell the migrants from the local birds, because migrating birds have a sense of urgency about them. They give you the eye, then hop away into the underbrush. Locals are busy yelling at each other from rooftops, oblivious to humans below.

There is a second peak in robin numbers in late fall, as the northern nesters move back down, either in transit or to spend the winter here. They lay waste to what remains of the berry crops (this is blueberry country) and help fatten up the young Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks.

It is a handsome bird, and only now that I have a new camera and am photographing everything that moves do I think to shoot one. They’re cooperative, usually pausing a few seconds and turning to give you their good side.

I was talking to a relative who lives in rural Ontario. He told me that to him, the surest sign of spring is the return of the Turkey Vultures. “About time, too,” he said. “Someone has to clean up the porcupines.” Poor porkies; they have a heck of a time on the roads.


Vasha said...

For me, the harbinger of spring is when I hear the first birdsong (other than chickadee calls). This year, if I remember rightly, it was a cardinal heard in early March. But my favorite spring returner is definitely the turkey vultures; it lifts my heart to see them soaring above the ridges.

Chrisss said...

When I lived in the States (mid-west), the harbinger of spring was the arrivals of robins and the cardinals.