Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Waiting For Spring: No Robins Yet!

American Robin by Wikimedia user MdfThe date of the first day of spring varies greatly, as the starting point of this anticipated time of the year depends upon how this season is defined. For those that rely on the calendar, spring begins on Wednesday, as this is when our tilted planet is at a particular position in its orbit around the sun.

For individuals more attuned to meteorology and climatology, spring officially starts on March 1st, as this is when a change in weather patterns traditionally commences. For many back-yard naturalists and people interested in something more noticeable, the sighting of a robin marks the onset of spring.

Before winter sets in, the robin abandons the Adirondacks for more southern locations. In these more temperate regions milder weather and a greater abundance of food allow for a better chance of survival. As the days lengthen and daily temperatures become warmer, this orange-breasted bird begins its journey north. The drive to get to higher latitudes where there is less competition for a breeding territory and soon-to-be expanding sources of food, urges this bird to migrate.

Despite the robin’s tolerance of periods of intense cold, this hardy creature is reluctant to venture into areas where snow still blankets the ground and the soil remains completely frozen. When an unseasonably cold pattern becomes entrenched over the region, northward flights cease, and all of the efforts of this familiar songster turn to survival.

Although the robin feeds primarily on seeds and berries through the autumn and winter, when spring comes, this member of the thrush family starts to incorporate increasing amounts of invertebrate matter into its diet. Worms are known to be a part of its spring menu, yet this ground feeder also consumes a vast array of bugs that exist on the surface of the soil.

Shortly after the snow melts, the robin forages for the remains of bugs, like crickets and grasshoppers, that perished late last fall due to exposure to a night of well below freezing temperatures. Masses of insect eggs and the larvae of overwintering invertebrates are also uncovered and ingested by this ground feeder as it probes nooks and crannies on the soil’s surface with its bill.

The first wave of robins traditionally arrives in the Adirondacks when patches of bare ground become common. South facing slopes of hillsides, the edges of marshes where high water has washed away all traces of snow, and areas beneath dense stands or groves of hemlock and pine, where much of the snow that falls gets hung-up on the boughs and melts before dropping to the ground, all attract robins that are arriving from their wintering grounds.

The males are always the first to arrive at their summer ranges, with the females coming approximately two weeks later. The time in March when the first of these seasonal residents appear is rarely the same from one year to another. Last year, with the unseasonably warm weather during the first half of the month, numerous foraging sites quickly developed for this bird, and the migration was well underway by St. Patrick’s Day.

This year, however, conditions are just the opposite. With well below normal temperatures, a persistent snowpack, and a weather pattern that is keeping the wind from the north, which discourages spring migration, it may be another week or two before the first wave of robins invade the North Country. Yet despite the severity of the weather and the direction of the prevailing winds, by April 1st, male robins always begin appearing throughout the Adirondacks.

During times when conditions for survival become a challenge, those individuals that do return focus all of their efforts on survival and waste no energy establishing a territory or singing. It is only after an individual has found suitable sources of food that it begins to proclaim its presence with the cheerful song associated with this bird.

It appears from the long range forecast that spring will be later than it has been in the past few years. This means that there will be few, if any robins seen these next several weeks. Also, should an individual or two happen to appear, they probably won’t be gracing the surroundings at dawn or near dusk with their melodious call. Yet spring will come, as it always does. This year it just happens to be running later than usual, as is indicated by the lack of robins, the true harbinger of spring here in the Adirondacks.

Photo: An American Robin, courtesy Wikimedia user Mdf.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

8 Responses

  1. Dan Crane says:

    Over the last week, I spotted American robins, common grackles and red-winged blackbirds down here in the Syracuse area, so it should not be too long before they show up in the Adirondacks.

  2. There was a robin in our yard yesterday (near Colton).

  3. Justin says:

    I can’t wait to see some robins in the yard!

  4. Just as in the winter of 2011-12, finding a wintering American robin in and around the town of Williston (near Burlington, VT) was not too difficult. While on fitness walks last week I heard the calls and songs of territorial robins. Those of newly arrived red-winged blackbirds form an odd chorus. Also vocalizing with territorial songs at present are black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice. In fact, the breeding season for many species is well underway.

    • Tom Kalinowski says:

      Good Evening Alan: Thanks for reading the Almanack. Your mention of the tufted titmouse is interesting, as I have only seen and heard one in the 40 years that I have been living in the Central Adirondacks. I am of the opinion that they are gradually invading our region, perhaps as a result of the changing climate. I should write an article in the not-too-distant future on this common resident of the temperate biome.

  5. Wren Hawk says:

    Robin in Upper Jay on Sunday 17.

  6. Pete Klein says:

    Other than crows and ravens, I haven’t heard tweets from any birds since last fall.
    Two feet of snow on the level in and around Indian Lake.

  7. T Myers says:

    In Ithaca saw red winged blackbirds on March 6th & March 9th – 11th saw 12 flocks of geese flying North.

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