It's still cold but the season has definitely turned a corner.
There are lots of signs. First of all, the moment the snow and ice disappeared, our American Tree Sparrow and all our Rusty Blackbirds and Fox Sparrows deserted us without a word of thanks. Another sign: Only a few short weeks ago in the bitter low temperatures the birds had all their feathers at right angles to their bodies to get the deepest thermal pile possible. Look, for example, at this Mourning Dove or this White-throated Sparrow.
Now it's not quite warm yet, but there is a bright sun and the doves are all sleeked down and this morning instead of wearing their feathers like overcoats, the White-throated Sparrows had their wings dropped to expose their backs to as much direct sun-heat as possible.
We were out driving last evening and saw thousands of blackbirds from every point of the compass being pulled like iron filings to a magnet towards an immense winter roost, but that same day when we were driving roads in western Craighead County past the still fallow fields, single male Red-winged Blackbirds were beginning to stake out territories every fifty or hundred feet along fence lines. That huge area along the western edge of the delta had been crowded with wintering Red-tailed Hawks, one of the densest concentrations in North America. They came from all over, Krider's Red-tails from the Great Plains, Harlan's Red-tails from western Canada, and most of the other western races. Here's a very handsome red-tail we saw in the last few days from some western race (as revealed by its dark throat; our eastern birds have white throats).
But it was the last one we've seen. Yesterday when we drove the roads we saw only eastern red-tails, and many were two by two, beginning to pair up for nesting.
Wherever in the stripped fields a cluster of bushes and scrappy saplings had managed to survive the fence-line-to-fence-line clearing, most often around small farmsteads, Loggerhead Shrikes were claiming territories. They are songbirds with the hooked beaks and raptorial habits of birds of prey. Here is one we stopped to admire. While we watched, the small predator flew down and seized an army worm, as if to demonstrate how useful he would be to the farmer who tolerated his presence. The species is declining everywhere in the country, but there are still healthy breeding populations in northeast Arkansas.
For the past two or three weeks we had been noticing flocks of Snow Geese flying high fast and north over our house, presumably on their way to their tundra nesting areas. And coming up highway 67 just a couple of days ago we saw several staging groups completely covering the ground, and whirling into the air like snow falling upward.
We couldn't stop on the busy divided highway, so I took some shots of them through our bug-splotched windshield while we sped by at 75 miles per hour, which is why they are so blurry, but they will give the sense of what we saw.
The very next day I thought we would drive through the fields and try to find one of the huge flocks along a quiet road where we could stop and I could take more careful pictures, but we drove all day and saw not a bird on the ground, and only the occasional small flock overhead. Does this mean they are gone for the year, all those tens of thousands?
During these long nearly insectless months, out of desperation for something to do to keep my spirits up, I started taking pictures of winter birds. Now I'm really enjoying it. I'm going to miss it.
Is winter already over?