April 15th – River Of Life

What a storm this is turning out to be: strong NE winds have been blowing for a day and a half now and don’t show any sign of giving up soon. Last night and first thing this morning it brought ice pellets (which accumulated to a depth of about 4-5 cm) before turning to rain late in the morning….but is still coming.

Around 9:30 this morning I took a walk around some of the trails at Ruthven to see how the nets were faring and, more importantly, to see how the birds were making out. There are a number of species that return early. Evidently the early birds are more successful in finding and maintaining a territory and thus raise more progeny. But this is a chancy thing. It’s a good strategy in favourable conditions; i.e., when food can be found. But for insectivores it’s tough to find food when it’s really cold and for granivorous/frugivorous birds its hard times when your food is covered with snow.

I saw almost NO birds on my walk up to the banding area from the highway but when I took the Riverside Trail down to the Grand River, it was a different story. The Grand River meanders a little but generally runs south-north (and at Ruthven it’s due north-south). For some birds it’s a highway – swallows and waterfowl for example. But today all kinds of birds were using it….just to stay alive. Down in the river flats and at the river’s edge the birds were sheltered from the wind. Further, the air right next to the river is warmer than a little further inland. Sometimes a few degrees can make the difference between life and death.

There were several groupings of American Robins. Some were consuming Sumac berries while others were foraging along the river edge. There was a large (50+) gathering of Tree Swallows sitting in tight clusters in shrubs overhanging the river along the lee shore out of the wind. They looked pretty bedraggled but every now and then several would launch themselves to skim the surface in search of emerging midges. Mixed in with them was a Barn Swallow and a couple of Northern Rough-winged Swallows.

Along the Riverside Trail, wherever there were sizeable trees next to the river, blackbirds were foraging in the lower branches or on the ground. They found considerable shelter from the wind in this area and, supposedly, food.

Down from the Fox Den Trail there is a low, flat, sheltered spot that looks like a flooded grassy area. This was filled with blackbirds, starlings, grackles and robins. Nine Greater Yellowlegs flew in to check things out and just offshore were several Wood Ducks. An Eastern Phoebe took up a perch at the edge of the grass on the lookout for any midge or other insect that might become available.

And right at the water’s edge by the Slink Island lookout I scared up a pair of Wilson’s Snipes – the first ones we’ve seen here.

Although much more in the wind, the other side of the river had birds strung out along the shore as well. The warmth of the river melted the snow back a couple of feet exposing, possibly, food.

This weather is going to put these early migrants to the test and….some of them will not make it. But staying close to the river gives them a fighting chance.
Rick

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