Finding Killdeer Nests: Two Methods

As part of my on-going effort to become more familiar with the behavior of the birds of Eliza Howell Park, I pay special attention to their breeding habits. Last week I commented on my so-far unsuccessful attempts to locate a Wood Duck nesting cavity. Since then, Killdeer, another of the March arrivals, has made its annual appearance.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

I have had more success in locating Killdeer nests, though this is also a big challenge. Killdeer nest on the open ground, in a small depression with no nest structure. The nesting birds are so well camouflaged that they can only be seen when they move. And, like Wood Ducks, the young leave the nest immediately after hatching, so there is no feeding activity to help one locate the nest.

Killdeer nest very early in the year, before the ground plants grow. In each of the areas shown in this picture, I was able to locate a Killdeer nest, in three different years.

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I found this nest (next picture) by using the nest-hunting method I usually employ for Killdeer:

  1. paying careful attention to the area of the field where a pair of Killdeer is “hanging out” in late March/early April;
  2. watching them, from a distance, to try to find the location where one of the pair settles down on the ground, a possible nest;
  3. trying to fix that location in my mind (this is difficult because an open field provides very few markers to go by);
  4. going to the location when the birds are absent to try to get a close-up look (even when I know there probably is a nest there, it remains difficult to actually spot it).

This strategy takes a lot of time and patience, but it often works.

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Nest-finding method # 2 is not really a method at all. I refer to it as serendipity, making the discovery more or less by accident, by being in the right place at the right time.

Two years ago I was walking across the field in April with a park visitor, heading toward an area where I had been observing Killdeer. All of a sudden, a Killdeer few out from three feet in front of us. Looking down, I saw that we had almost stepped on a nest, at least 50 yards from the area I thought might be their nesting site.

After a quick picture, we left the area so that incubation could resume.

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Killdeer nest regularly in Eliza Howell, but, as far as I can determine, only one or two pair a year. They nest early and usually in the area of the park that is mowed. In some years, I am concerned that the eggs might not hatch before mowing begins.

Killdeer probably have another brood later in the nesting season, but I have not yet located a nest after April.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

The pair that arrived within the last few days has already been engaged in mating activity; they are likely to nest soon.

And I have started my watching, noting that they seem to be favoring an area that has the kind of gravelly ground that Killdeer often like for their nests. I will be back, multiple times.

And, if my patient watching doesn’t confirm a nest, maybe I will discover one by method # 2?

Eastern Bluebird: Becoming a Regular Nesting Species

Earlier this November, I watched several Eastern Bluebirds feeding in Eliza Howell Park, birds that were probably on a brief stopover during their southward migration. This observation started me thinking about my other observations of this species over the last 15 years.

The difference between the female and male Eastern Bluebird can be seen clearly in these two photos by Margaret Weber. The female is shown first here.

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Eastern Bluebirds were in serious decline throughout their range last century (especially from about 1920 till about 1970). They are insect eaters and a secondary cavity nesting species. Unable to make their own nesting holes as woodpeckers do, they need to find existing cavities. There were many reasons for the decline, including pesticide use, removal of dead trees, habitat change, etc. In addition, European Starlings, an introduced species that is also a secondary cavity nester, was much more aggressive about claiming tree cavities.

In the last 50 years, however, Bluebirds have gone from being endangered to being a conservation success story. One part of the turnaround has been the widespread use of Bluebird nesting boxes, made with an opening that is large enough for bluebirds but too small for the larger Starlings. Thanks to a birdbox making project of Sidewalk Detroit, there are now a couple such boxes in Eliza Howell Park.

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Fifteen years ago, I did not usually see Bluebirds in the park during the breeding season. Now I have seen them in most of the last 10 breeding seasons and they have probably been nesting here for several years (though I have not been able to make positive confirmation until recently).

The nesting box shown above was placed in the Spring of 2018 and has been used by Bluebirds both last year and this year. They usually have 2 broods per year, typically in the same nest. Note the evidence of the frequent use of the entrance hole.

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In late April this year, while the female was away from the nest, I put my camera in the box and took a quick picture.

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Recently, after nesting was finished for the year, I opened the box to clean it out for them to use again next year. My guess is that they added more nesting material after the first brood.

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The feather confirms the species that used the nest, if there were any doubt.

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Eastern Bluebirds migrate each spring and fall, but do not go very far south. Southern Michigan is at the northern end of the winter/year-round range. I occasionally see one or two in the winter in Eliza Howell, but I don’t really expect to see them again until March. (The range map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

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In addition to helping bluebirds find “housing,” nest boxes provide a good opportunity for bird watchers to see these lovely birds. Bluebirds need some open area (ideally something like a field with scattered trees) for their insect hunting. They are not likely to nest in small urban backyards, but Eliza Howell is now one urban location where there is a good chance to watch them in the spring and summer.

The next photo, also by Margaret Weber, taken at a different location, suggests some of the pleasure in Bluebird watching in nesting season.

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Some Recent FOYs

“FOY,” meaning first-of-the-year observation, appears frequently in my notes about my visits to Eliza Howell Park at this time of the year. There is something new to be seen every day.

Here are a few selected FOYs from recent walks, each of which seems noteworthy in its own way.

1.FOY Wild Lupine.

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Lupine tends to be the first to bloom each year among the flowers in native wildflower field at Eliza Howell. It is starting to bloom now and I always note it both because of its attractiveness and as a herald of all that is to come.

2.FOY Baltimore Oriole Nest

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

The nesting Baltimore Orioles are one of the highlights of the Detroit Audubon-sponsored field trip to Eliza Howell each June. (This year it is Saturday, June 8, at 8:00 a.m. – free and open to all.)

These orioles typically arrive in the first week of May and begin building nests in the third week of the month. The picture here was taken on May 18; the female was weaving.

3.FOY Burrowing Crayfish Hole

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Crayfish (also called crawfish and sometimes crawdads) are gilled and clawed crustaceans, related to lobsters. Some are terrestrial, spending most of their lives away from bodies of water. They burrow down to groundwater and come up at night to eat on land. They are nocturnal and I have no pictures from Eliza Howell, but this hole is evidence that they remain present in the park. This one will probably continue to remove mud as it digs deeper, piling it up near the entrance in the shape of a chimney (or volcano).

4.FOY Common Milkweed

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The common milkweed is a wildflower made famous as a host plant for Monarch butterfly eggs and larvae. Right after I saw the FOY Monarch on May 15, I checked a spot where I have found early milkweeds in other years. They are up and growing and will be ready any time the Monarchs are ready to lay eggs.

5.FOY Fledgling Robins

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The day after I took this picture of 4 young robins filling the nest, they left it. While I have been observing a number of different bird nests this spring, this is the first that I have watched successful fledging.

6.FOY Opossum Encounter

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On a recent walk in the EHP woods, I met this opossum along the path. “Possums” are nocturnal mammals and this daytime encounter reminds me that they are sometimes visible during the day. Maybe someday I see a mother opossum with several young on her back. That would be a great lifetime first (designated in my notes by “L” for “lifer.”)

7.FOY Honeysuckle Blossoms

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The redbuds and the crabapples have already been blooming for some time, but one of my favorite blossoms, honeysuckle, is just beginning. Most of the honeysuckle in the park have white blossoms, but a few, like this one, tend toward pink. The picture was taken on May 21.

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This list of recent FOYs could be considerably longer, but it is time to get away from the desk and back to the park to see what is new today!

Cardinal Nest Watch

The watch started on April 26, when I noticed a female Northern Cardinal carrying a twig into a small bush in Eliza Howell Park. Cardinals usually have two broods a year and April is the normal time for the first in southeast Michigan.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

The closer look I took when she flew away showed a partially constructed nest. By April 28, the next looked finished or very nearly finished.

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Cardinals usually hide their nests in dense plant growth and in locations where they cannot be seen or watched from any distance. This one is quite well camouflaged, but it is low and visible (especially when using binoculars) on one side from about 30 feet. I immediately thought that this is a nest that I might be able to watch without disturbing the birds.

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The female Cardinal lays one a day until there are 3 – 5 eggs. And, like many birds, it doesn’t start incubating them until the clutch is (nearly) complete. This results in the eggs all hatching at nearly the same time.

On April 30, there was no bird present, so I approached the nest: 1 egg. On May 1: 2 eggs. On May 2: 3 eggs.

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Starting on May 3, the female has been on the nest every time I looked, so I have kept some distance and have not been able to discover the full clutch size.

Among cardinals, the female does all the brooding, while the male is nearby and feeds her from time to time (I have not yet seen him feeding her at this location).

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Cardinal eggs hatch after 11 – 13 days incubation, so I expect the next big development to be about May 14 – 16, if all goes well. Then both parents feed the young for about 10 days.

One of the questions I have is whether a Brown-headed Cowbird has laid an egg in the cardinal nest (and possibly displaced one of the cardinal eggs). Cowbirds are brood parasites, laying eggs in the nests of other birds for incubation and feeding. Another cardinal nest I checked this year contained three cardinal eggs and one cowbird egg.

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Not all nests lead to the successful fledging of young. There are a variety of reasons for nests to fail, so I will be watching to see whether the nest is destroyed or abandoned, how many eggs hatch, how many nestlings fledge, and whatever else I might observe.

The location is one that makes it easier for me to watch this nest than others that I have found, but it seems a risky location, more vulnerable to predators. But it was selected by the pair together, without requesting my opinion, so I will  simply continue to enjoy my opportunity to nest watch!

 

Tulip Tree: The Bud Opens

One tree I visit regularly in Eliza Howell Park is a tulip tree. Perhaps I should say the tulip tree, since I am aware of only one in the park. I described the tree in my post on June 2, 2018 (“Getting to Know the Tulip Tree”).

During the last month, the tulip tree has been a primary focus of my observations on opening tree buds.

On March 26, 2019, the tulip buds still appeared dormant, with the same look that they had had all winter.

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In early April, the changes began. Note the progression in the next pictures.

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The “tulip” shape of the new leaves is now apparent.

In about a month, the flowers will be open. (This picture was taken May 29, 2018.)

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I expect to be there, watching and enjoying.

 

Cutleaf Toothwort: A Spring Flower with an Unusual Name

Cutleaf Toothwort is one of my favorites among the early wildflowers in Eliza Howell Park, a delicate woodland flower with a not-so-delicate name. It is beginning to bloom this week and will be finished blooming already in a couple weeks.

Note: The first public Eliza Howell nature walk of 2019 will include a look at this and some other spring wildflowers: Saturday, April 27, at 10:00 a.m. Everyone is welcome. We will meet near the nature trail, about ½ of the way around the road loop from the Fenkell entrance.  

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Cutleaf Toothwort (or Cut-leaved Toothwort) is a perennial that grows in moist soil that is undisturbed and rich with organic matter, typically found in areas that have dappled sunlight before they become shaded when the trees overhead have leafed out.

It often grows in patches and is quite common in Eliza Howell along the path in the woods.

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It gets to be several inches tall, with anywhere from 3 to 15 flowers bunched at the top of the stem. Each ½ inch flower has 4 white petals, sometimes tinged with pink. The flowers often hang down and may be only partially open on cloudy days.

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The “cutleaf” part of the name is clearly understandable when one looks at the leaves. “Toothwort” is less evident. “Wort” is a word used for a number of plants, especially those considered to have some medicinal value; an example is “St. John’s Wort.” There are a couple possible explanations for the “tooth” part of the name. One is that it is based on the reported use of the roots by some Native Americans to treat toothache. The most widespread explanation for “tooth” in the name, and the explanation that I usually give, is that the underground tuber resembles a tooth.

I try not to disturb native wildflowers growing in the park, but we have a little patch of Cutleaf Toothwort in our yard and I dug up a plant there.

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Cutleaf Toothwort is a true ephemeral perennial (short above-ground life cycle); about two months after the first growth appears, it has produced its seed, dies back, and does not show itself again until the next spring. It’s a plant to enjoy while I can.

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Other early woodland wildflowers that appear in Eliza Howell near the end of April include Spring Beauty, Trout Lily (2 types), Violet (a variety), and Wild Geranium. After a long winter, they are all most welcome. Cutleaf Toothwort is just one, but somehow it gets my special attention.

The Old Reptile Took a Walk

Turtles are not common in Eliza Howell Park, especially out of the river, so I was surprised a few days ago to see a large Common Snapping Turtle walking in the woods, headed away from the river. It was clearly a mature adult and my first thought was that it was seeking a place to lay eggs, since they place their eggs in sand or ground to incubate and hatch.

But I quickly had second thoughts: this is too early in the spring for egg laying and it was walking the woods where the ground is entirely covered with dead leaves and not suitable for turtles to place eggs. So I decided to wait to see where it would go and what it would do.

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I first approached for a closer look. It was one of the larger snapping turtle I have seen. The carapace (upper shell) was perhaps 13-15 inches long and the legs appeared enormous. I’m sure it is decades old, probably the oldest animal in the park (if you exclude some of us humans).

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It stopped walking when I was got close and, though its head and tail are too big to draw entirely under its shell, it closed down to the best of its ability.

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I quickly walked away to let it continue and observed the rest through my binoculars. When I first saw it, it was about 50 yards from the river. Over the next hour and 10 minutes, it traveled through lots of leaves, over some fallen logs, though a stump hole, and around trees, but in pretty much of a straight line. Since there is a large vernal pool in the woods in the direction it was headed, I guessed that to be the destination.

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Eventually, it did reach the vernal pool, a total distance from the river of about 200 yards. I think its journey ended when it reached the pool, but I don’t know for sure.

It is in the middle of this picture, apparently just resting in the water.

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I am curious about the nature of this trip at this time of the year. Was the snapping turtle returning to its spring “home” after spending the winter in permanent water (the vernal pool dries up late in the summer and snappers spend the winter in water) or was it possibly moving to a new location? I don’t know.

I have seen snapping turtles in Eliza Howell Park on a few other occasions, but I will now be on the lookout for another encounter with this specific big old reptile.

Spring Butterflies: Five of the Earliest

Butterfly season peaks in the summer, but a few begin to fly on warmer sunny days in the spring. Of the approximately 30 different species that I see each year in Eliza Howell Park, there are five that are always among the earliest to appear.

1.Mourning Cloak

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Butterflies have different ways of surviving the winter. Some few migrate; some overwinter as chrysalis and complete development in the spring; some hibernate as adults. Mourning Cloak is one that hibernates, under bark or a log, and emerges, as soon as the weather is warm enough, to feed on sap and rotten fruit and to get minerals and moisture from the soil. It looks much less colorful when the wings are folded.

2.Eastern Comma

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The butterflies that overwinter as adults locally are the earliest to take flight in the spring. Eastern Comma also hibernates and it, or Mourning Cloak, is usually the very first I see. Early in the spring, it feeds on sap and decaying organic material. Even later in the year, it is rarely seen on flowers.

The underwings are brown with a white mark in the general shape of a comma.

3.Spring Azure

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The Spring Azure is a blue butterfly that overwinters as chrysalis. It is very small and, when seen flying or with the wings open, the blue is striking. Whenever it allows me to take its picture, however, it has its wings closed and shows no blue at all. Early in the spring, the azure does not visit flowers, but later in the season it (or the subspecies Summer Azure) does. This picture was taken later in the year and is likely a Summer Azure.

4.Cabbage White

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One of only two non-native butterfly species that have become widespread in North America, Cabbage White also spends the winter as chrysalis. When the wings are open, the dark spots on the wings are evident as is the black on the tip. The name comes from the fact that Cabbage White caterpillars often feed on plants in the cabbage family.

5.Red Admiral

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The Red Admiral is one of the butterflies that migrate south for the winter. When the wings are folded, the insect is drab-looking, with only a small bit of orange showing. It too will take sap and decaying organic material until flowers bloom and then it is usually seen nectaring. The picture was taken in the summer.

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In July, when thousands of wildflowers are blooming in the fields of Eliza Howell, butterflies are numerous. During April, before the flowers bloom, there are only a few on some of the warmer sunny days. But for those of us eager to see butterflies again and to delight in the very fact that they are appearing again, the season begins.

Blue Flag and Yellow Flag: Two Irises

Among the very earliest perennial flowering plants to emerge in Eliza Howell Park in the spring are the two iris species: blue flag and yellow flag. They grow in wet areas and I am aware of only one location for each, in different sections of the park. They have now, in late March, both emerged and begun to grow.

Blue flag presently looks like this.

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Blue flag is a native North American iris, one of the many native wild flowers that bloom in Eliza Howell. Because there is only one small patch (as far as I know), in a wet woodland location, not many visitors to the park are likely to see it.

In about two and a half months, in early June, it will look like this.

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The yellow flag iris patch is in the flood plain of the Rouge River, where it survives despite being under water several times in a typical spring. This is what it looks like at present, as the water is receding.

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Yellow flag is not native to North America, originally found in Eurasia. It was brought here as a garden flower and the wild ones now found in places like Eliza Howell “escaped” from gardens and naturalized. It blooms later in spring. 

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Both are lovely examples of Eliza Howell flowers, blooming in the season after the earliest woodland wild flowers and before most open field flowers.

Blue flag is prized by those interested in having plants in local parks that were in the Detroit area long before European Americans named it Detroit and changed the landscape. There is something to be said for maintaining that connection.

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I am happy to help park visitors find either or both.

 

The Red Wings Are Coming

It was on “the eighteenth of April, in seventy five” (in Longfellow’s poem) that “the midnight ride of Paul Revere” occurred, when he spread the alarm that the Redcoats are coming.

As the first of March approaches every year, it is time to announce, with eager anticipation instead of alarm, that the Red Wings are coming to Eliza Howell Park (the Red-winged Blackbirds, that is, not the Detroit professional hockey team).

Usually the first of the summer residents to return for the breeding season, Red-winged Blackbirds often arrive when winter is still very much present. Twice in the last 10 years I have seen the first of them on February 27.

The males seem to be in a particular hurry to claim a breeding territory.

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       Note: The bird photos here are all by Margaret Weber.

As I enumerated in a posting last year (“The March 10 (or 11),” February 22, 2018), the bird population in the park begins to grow rapidly in March. Among these early arrivals, the Red-winged Blackbird is usually the first and often the most easily visible.

The males arrive before the females, who might not make it till late March. These females will find the males, with their bright red patches and singing loudly, ready to welcome them to the territories they have claimed.

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Females look very different. In fact, it can take some experience to identify them as the same species; they resemble sparrows in some ways.

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As can be seen from the range map, most RWBs winter in the states and some do not have far to travel to reach Detroit before spring does. (The map is taken from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

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In Eliza Howell Park, there are several nesting “pairs” each year. I put “pairs” in quotation marks because this is a species that does not breed as a simple one-male one-female pair. The male often mates with and protects several females in his territory and genetic studies have shown that quite frequently the nestlings are not all sired by the territorial male.

In marshes, Red-winged Blackbirds often nest in cattails. Outside of the marshes, and in Eliza Howell Park, they nest in tall grasses or in shrubs and small trees. The nests are open on top and often have 4 eggs. I found this nest in May a couple years ago.

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The picture is not very clear because I didn’t linger long enough to get a good shot. Red-winged blackbirds are very aggressive in protecting their territory and their nests. They chase much larger birds and animals of all sizes, including humans. It is advisable to have head protection of some sort when walking near nesting Red-winged Blackbirds. It is common to experience “dive bombing” that seems to be aimed directly at the head.

They come flying, not just to impress females, but also to protect against intruders.

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The Red Wings are coming. The spring birding season is beginning.