Wednesday, April 08, 2009

On Curlews and the Coming of Spring

Essay by Virginia Glasscock, assistant manager, Silver Creek Preserve. Photo by Dave Glasscock.

In this part of Idaho, where cold temperatures, snow, and short daylight hours are the “default mode” of winter, we look forward to spring with an enthusiasm unequaled by our friends in more moderate climes.

The powers that be have declared March 20 to be the first day of spring, but we all have our own measures of the actual arrival of this important seasonal milestone. This is such a major occasion that it is celebrated emotionally, not just officially.

Some folks might count spring as starting when they quit using the flannel sheets, or put the snow shovel away, or wash the windows for the first time.

But outdoorsmen always look to the seasonal markers provided by nature. It may be the date of “ground zero”, when the snow is finally gone and bare ground is again visible (often the subject of good-natured wagering). It may be seeing your first ground squirrel, or the observation of a green sprout of something emerging among the sagebrush.

But most people I know use birds as heralds of this highly anticipated season, and everyone seems to have their own favorite.

I dismiss the choice of the robin as a cliché. They always seem to show up before winter is fully spent, then hunker down with their feathers all fluffed out, looking disgruntled. Besides, a bird so common (the 6th most abundant land bird in the Silver Creek Preserve bird counts), doesn’t seem special enough to be appointed the true harbinger of spring.

The sandhill crane also has its many advocates. These birds are large, majestic, and vocal, and they command admiration. It is thrilling to hear their loud calls and watch their antics in the fields. Yet this seems, to me, somewhat too obvious a choice, picking the biggest and flashiest bird around.

While various other bird species also have their champions, my personal choice for the indicator of spring is the long-billed curlew, Numenius americanus.

This large shorebird, buff brown in color, arrives here from its wintering grounds in Mexico in early April, just as the weather is finally changing for good.

They have a variety of loud calls and cries and a recognizable flight pattern, so they are easily identified, even from a long distance. It is fascinating to watch them probe for earthworms in the fields with their improbably long, downward curved bills.

I’m only able to enjoy one of my favorite birds for only a short time before they move on. The curlew seems the most appropriate symbol of all- charming, raucous, and entertaining by turns, and as fleeting as the brief Idaho spring. --Virginia Glasscock

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