John Burroughs (1837-1921) and John Muir (1838-1914) were two of the most popular and successful American nature writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During their lives and writings both approached the subject of nature differently. Muir spent much of his adult life exploring the rugged mountain wilderness areas of California and Alaska. John Burroughs spent most of his entire life (84 yrs.) living on a small New York farm that overlooked the Hudson River just a short distance from the Catskill Mountains where he was born.
Burroughs was a quiet, cheerful writer who popularized amateur nature observations and instilled an appreciation for local wildlife on his readers. Burrough's geographical area was small, but his intellectual range was large for he was observant of birds and wildlife around him. His talent for nature writing is similar to my own. Observe, listen, then write.
One spring day Burrough's wrote, "We cannot greet every new spring in a new land, but we can in every spring celebrate the miraculous return of the birds, whose disappearance in autumn is as sweetly sad as the falling leaves, and whose return is as cheering as the first flower to bloom in the woods." Already the mute swans and geese have paired off as winter ice wanes.
Spring in Michigan can be enjoyed from early March to the middle of June and it is during this period that many birds return, like Scarlet Tanagers, Northern Orioles, Great Crested Flycatchers, Carolina Wrens, Cedar Waxwings, Brown Thrashers, Black and White Warblers, Red-eyed Vireos, Red-winged blackbirds, Grackles, Robins, yes even Blue Jays and Northern Flickers migrates southward a few hundred miles.
When singing male Bluebirds drop out of blue sky in mid-March spring begins - when the dandelions bloom and mosquitoes become vampires the swallows return and when the wild violets bloom the Wood Thrushes arrive. When the Cottonwoods trees flower and the puffy white fuzz flies like a blizzard the Northern Orioles return and so the spring cycle for all returning birds is complete.
"Knowledge is only half the task. The other half is love," said Burrough's.
In order to understand the true rites of spring we must have a passionate love affair with Mother Nature. Each day we must observe and listen to what nature teaches us and here's an example. Have you ever noticed the difference between late winter and early spring. On cold overcast days the woods are silent, but on bright early mornings when the sun is rising the woods are alive with bird chatter. As the days get longer, brighter and warmer, the robins sing beautiful musical tunes from tall trees and the face the sun. They sing louder as storm clouds build and raindrops fall. Even the frogs and spring peepers are silent, but the very next day the meadows, woods and wetlands come alive with the ear piercing screeching from Northern Flickers. The Blue Jays entertain us with their loud tea-kettle sounds and yet their voice is nothing compared to the loud ear piercing, "Woicka-woika-woika, wicker, wicker, wicker or flicka, flicka, flicka" calls of Northern Flickers that echo from distant woodlots far and wide on a warm spring day.
Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) are slightly larger than American robins or Blue Jays. These 13-14 inch long birds are the only brown-backed members of woodpecker families in Michigan. The are beautiful with brown back with dark black bars. They are whitish below with black spots and a black crescent slash across the breast and have a white rump in flight. Michigan birds have a red spot on nape of neck. The males sport a black mustache from the bill to just below the black eyes. In forward flight they undulate up and down and the underside wing linings and tail feathers are a flashy golden yellow. They inhabit open woodland areas around farms, orchards (don't drill holes like their cousins) and woodlots. They love parks and tree lined city streets, because these have next cavities just the right size to raise families. They are quite sociable birds.
Due to the warm winter without much snow, already I can hear their boisterous courting rituals, the singing between two pairs of Northern Flickers. Like the Yellow-bellied sapsucker, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, the Northern Flickers are staking out territorial boundaries to attract their mated for life partners with loud rhythmical drumming by striking their bills against hollow or dead branches producing that 'dat-dat-dat-dat' racket on whatever they land upon. To further annoy humans mating flickers will pound out a beat like American Indians banging on drums. They pound on metal rain gutters, drainpipes, stovepipes, dryer vents, trashcans, aluminum siding, mail boxes and street signs. You name it and they'll drive humans nuts. Now you understand what bird puts those tiny dents in these items.
Believe it or not, one spring afternoon I had a terrible headache. I laid down on my bed and before I could fall asleep a clicker was loudly drumming on my roof flashing about twenty feet away. The drumming was obnoxious and loud and the resonant sounds vibrated through the walls nearly causing my head to explode. I was in utter misery. All I wanted to do was rest in silence, but oh, no, the obnoxious birds were bound to drive me nuts. Thoughts of 'justifiable homicide' popped into my mind.
Actually Northern Flickers only utter the loud vocal calls and drummings for about eith weeks from early April to June. The racket they create is for territorial and courtship rituals to attract the females and females arrive two-three weeks after the males arrive. These are head bobbers, a natural response to females. The birds raise their breasts and bob their heads up and down and from side to side. Wings are lifted slightly and tails spread outward to expose the flashy golden yellow underside feathers and then the "Woika, woika, woika" serenades begin. They get pretty intense during territorial conflicts or sexual rivalries for a life mate during the first several days of courtship.
Drum rolling is the rapid hitting of the beaks on resonant objects that produce a "tatatatata" which generally occurs near the nest hole. The "tatatatata" sounds are used to attract its mate to the tree from a distant woodlot. Flickers will return to the same nesting tree year after year and defend a home range about 1/2 mile square near the nest cavity. Once the eggs hatch the territory shrinks and they defend only a 150-acre site. Whenever male and female come together they greet each other with a soft "weeta-weeta-weeta" call. I love listening to the sweet singers.
Well that's all for today's blog. Continued.