End of March, some really nice bright days, and now a shift to south and south easterly conditions: great winds for the first migrants to arrive: a singing Blackcap was our first spring migrant, 29th March, followed by a Willow Warbler and a Chiffchaff in song, all by the end of the month.
it was nice to hear from my occasional correspondent, Ray O'Hanlon, now based in the Hudson Valley, north of New York and a former member of the Dublin Central branch of the IWC ( we're going back 40 plus years here!). Ray is enjoying the first migrants too, after a harsh American winter.. I suspect that his list of migrants will be extensive by the end of the season..
Throughout the nesting season there is a lot of scurrying about in the eaves of the house.
Indeed, the dawn chorus is more akin to the dawn racket as members of the Hudson Valley branch of the Starling family set about adding to their already considerable North American numbers.
|Starling (Shay Connolly)|
They are, like me, immigrant in origin. They breached America's borders by means of 19th century facilitators calling themselves the American Acclimatization Society.
The society, as ornithological historians know, was intent on introducing to the new world every bird mentioned by Shakespeare.
It's a good thing they did not succeed. The Bard was a literary check-lister of some note, mentioning about 600 species in his copious works.
Had the society managed to import even half this number, the result would have been chaotic and America’s gardens, fields and forests very different sounding places.
As it was, the society did manage to give the Starlings a little old world company.
It also shipped in the House Sparrow, Passer Domesticus.
But if ever there was a winged citizen of the world it was this little fellow. He shares the eaves with his larger neighbours, immigrants all.
The Starlings’ first adventures in America occurred in Manhattan's Central Park when a number of them were released in 1890 and 1891.
In a little over half a century, they had spread their wings across most of North America, from Canada to Mexico, and across the span of the United States.
And into our eaves.
Starlings stay in the Northeast during the winter months, even when, as has been the case this year, winter has been especially worthy of the name.
Put it this way: St. Patrick’s Day arrived and receded and there was still ice in the Hudson below us, and this about thirty-five miles north of the aforementioned Central Park.
Starlings, then, do not qualify as harbingers of spring.
But an avian pal fits the bill: the Common Grackle.
Grackles are like Starlings on growth hormones, a half way between the Shakespearean interlopers and the Crow family, though they are most closely related to the American Blackbird.
They appear black from a distance, but up close, according to the online Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “their glossy purple heads contrast with bronzy-iridescent bodies. A bright golden eye gives grackles an intent expression. Females are slightly less glossy than males. Young birds are dark brown with a dark eye.”
Grackles do not hang around when the first chill of fall sets in but fly down the eastern seaboard to warmer climes, to the Carolinas, or to winter dormitory states like Florida.
But when they return to the frigid Northeast it is a sure sign that winter is waning. Indeed, you can set your seasonal clock by them.
Locally, the first sign of Grackles is the cackling that passes for their conversation on electric wires.
The sound of them does not evoke the romance of the first Cuckoo call. But they are my adopted version of the first Cuckoo or Swallow.
And after a northeastern American winter, especially like the one now reluctantly giving away, I am not fussy.
The wires down by the train station are their first point of local arrival.
Here, the Starlings have been waiting for them.
|Migrant Starlings (c. OOS)|
Walking to the train I barely glance upwards at the sound of those grizzled veterans of December, January and February.
But when I hear that Grackle cackle I stop in my, well, tracks.
I did so on March 12th. This was a full three weeks later than last year when the Grackles returned with days in February to spare.
So they not only announce spring, they confirm, loudly, that winter was a doozy.
And it was.
But fear not! With the arrival of the Grackles its numbing days are numbered.
Their arrival, the first croak of spring if you will, doesn’t inspire poetry, letters to the New York Times, not even a spoof correspondence to the Irish Times.
But it does speak of the kind of climate change that is actually good for us – the humdrum, normal, natural, seasonal one.
Ray O’Hanlon is a journalist and author who lives with his wife and family in the Hudson Valley, north of New York City