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Wednesday March 13, 2019   |
Tens of thousands of Snow Geese spend a month or two in Paulís neighborhood before pressing north to nesting colonies in the Arctic tundra.
White-fronted Geese overhead is a sure sign of spring.
The male Ferruginous Hawk in flight last summer.

Dreaming of Spring: It’s been a long, long winter, but judging by the calendar, the excitement of spring migration stirs memories of birds to come! Birding reports from the Sun Belt and West Coast show new species are making their way northward, as they should by March. Many birds begin migrating north due to the increasing daylight period and other cues beyond weather conditions. It’s the same cue used by some early nesting birds; for instance, Great Horned Owls. Late Thursday, I found my first incubating Great Horned Owl of the year about 11 miles north of my office in south-central North Dakota.

That’s normal timing, but I was still a bit surprised considering how long and hard the winter has been and continues to be. It was inspiring to find the incubating owl, and it made me wonder if others had initiated nesting. So Friday afternoon I drove west to check a few nest sites that Great Horned Owls used last year. Expecting to find at least one of the former hawk nests topped by a big incubating owl I was disappointed after checking three top prospects – no owls. But one consolation was seeing a Great Horned hunting less than a mile north of the most promising nest site where two nestlings fledged last year. Maybe Thursday’s active owl nest was a first in the area.

The good news is that the transition to the spring season has begun, and there will be more nesting Great Horned Owls in coming days and weeks. Soon too, hopefully, spring migration will begin: Starting with the first vanguard flocks of Snow Geese, peppered with Ross’s Geese, and quickly joined by Canada Geese, White-fronted Geese and Cackling Geese – the five migrating species will make an extended stop to feed for a few weeks before continuing to nesting colonies in the Arctic. However, the local population of nesting Giant Canada Geese will remain, quickly establishing territories and beginning to build nests. The sound of goose music in the neighborhood certainly makes spring official for me!

At the same time, Mallard and Northern Pintail ducks will arrive ahead of a dozen other duck species, some before the ice breaks in area wetlands. This spring will be an exceptional year for nesting waterfowl considering the amount of snow that will melt, eventually, and fill the multitude of wetland basins here. An interesting feature of this region is that there are no streams or rivers to drain the meltwater; the wetlands are not interconnected, and with a multitude of relatively small basins, this is one of the most important duck nesting areas in North America.

Raptors are among the first to filter north too, including Bald Eagles, Rough-legged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Harriers, American Kestrels, and one particular pair of Ferruginous Hawks. For the past couple years, a special pair of Ferruginous Hawks has nested south of here, on the eastern-most edge of the species’ nesting range, and I’m expecting them to return in a couple weeks. In the meantime, the next week looks like even more snow and I’m waiting for the temperature to climb above the 32 degree freezing mark for the first time since January 7. Whoo, it’s been a long winter!

Post Script: After a big snowstorm Saturday, windless sunshine pried me away from writing for an hour’s drive Sunday afternoon. As I approached the nest where the Ferruginous Hawk pair has been a favorite neighbor the past few years, I was stunned to see a Great Horned Owl incubating (or still egg laying), in spite of the snow plastered into the side of the nest. That fact kind of ties together my article this week – looking for nesting owls and thinking about the Ferrug pair as spring approaches.

Now I’m wondering how the Ferrug’s will react. Will they stay in the area? Will they try to usurp the owl from the nest and their annual territory? Will they take over a nearby nest used by a Red-tail last year? Will they build a new nest nearby? Or keep moving to find a new territory somewhere beyond my reach? It pits the biggest hawk vs. the biggest owl; daylight conqueror against the nocturnal commander. It’s always interesting when something like this happens! The bottom line is that although Great Horned Owls don’t build a nest, they get the first pick of available hawk nests to use as their own.

Article and photos by Paul Konrad

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