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Blane Klemek column: Bird music resonates on springtime stage

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Springtime is one of the best times to observe wildlife, especially birds. Indeed, neo-tropical migrants have been filtering into Minnesota for some time now. Horned larks, considered to be the true harbingers of spring by many birders, were probably the first to arrive onto the open landscapes.

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And while most birds have already arrived to their breeding grounds here in the Northland, some birds, such as snow buntings and dark-eyed juncos, have already passed through, with others yet to come -- rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, and ruby-throated hummingbirds are but a few we've yet to see. With the comings and goings of so many of our avian friends, it's difficult to keep up with the steady influx and exodus.

One of the truly fascinating aspects of springtime bird-watching is observing the abundant and diverse courtship and vocal performance opportunities. What with 430 or more species of birds that call Minnesota home during all or part of the year, it's no wonder our heads spin and ears ring this time of year.

Right now, male common snipe have solidly booked the airspace above wetland habitats everywhere. The birds are putting on orchestra-like performances that can often be heard throughout the day, but typically are most intense at dawn and dusk. The male produces the unique flight-song while flying high above their individual territories; this is called "winnowing." The musical sound's purpose is to attract mates and to defend fiercely protected space from other male snipe.

After the male snipe soars to great heights in the sky, he then dives while beating his wings. Though sounding vocal, the somewhat hollow and whistled ascending song is actually created as air flows over his spread-out, specially modified outer tail feathers. The thin and curved outermost feathers of the male snipe's tail are responsible for this ubiquitous and delightful courtship song of spring.

If snipe make up a portion of the wind instrument contingent of the avian springtime orchestra, ruffed grouse are certainly a part of the percussion section. Providing a backdrop to the overhead snipe music in adjacent woodlands, the steady "thump, thump, thump, pwrrrrr" wing-beats of the little "drummers of the woods" add to the pleasurable toe-tapping tempo of other courting species.

Male ruffed grouse seek out suitable drumming sites within their wooded haunts, choosing fallen logs, tree stumps and sometimes earthen mounds or boulders from which to drum upon. First-time human listeners (myself included as a young lad of many years ago), liken the sound to that of an old John Deere tractor a-pop-pop-poppin' on some distant farm field.

But it isn't, of course. A strutting ruffed grouse displays eloquently, like a tom turkey, with tail-feathers fanned about and primary wing-feathers extended and sometimes dragging on the ground. Along with his fluffed black-colored ruff, Ol' Ruff looks more the part of orchestra conductor than the musician he really is.

Propping himself up with his fanned tail, he surveys his surroundings speculatively, and, when all seems well and good, he stretches himself to full height, puffs out his breast and slaps quickly the air with both his wings -- slow and deliberate at first -- but soon culminating in a rapid series of noisy wing-beats that can easily be heard by prospective mates from several hundred yards away on windless mornings and evenings.

Also performing, but in seclusion within wetland string sections hiding among cattails, grasses and sedges far below the winnowing snipe overhead, skulks the unusual American bittern. It is not a stretch to imagine the strings of a bass or cello being plucked, especially when the bird gulps air to produce the remarkable territorial/mating call. The bizarre vocalization is often described as sounding like a water pump, but truth be told, I'm not certain I know what a water pump even sounds like.

What I do know is the male bittern produces the amazing resonance by first filling his esophagus with air and, improbably, repeats the "onk-o-runk" call from two to 10 times before running out of air. He violently tosses his head and neck backward each time the vocalization is expelled in loud booming bursts across the marsh.

And what avian orchestra would be complete without the brass section? Trumpeter swans, their calls and great white forms, turn our heads every time. No other name for this beautiful native swan would be appropriate; they play their trumpets expertly, sweetly and magically. But perhaps they would play French horns equally as well? The Canada goose does, I think. And woodwinds? Playing the flutes are thrushes such as the hermit, Swainson's and wood thrushes.

Others come to mind as well. For instance, where would the male American woodcock fit in as he lofts himself on his 300-foot twittering and bubbly sing-song flight? Or, for that matter, the unusual "peenting" call he vocalizes while sitting on the ground?

What about male prairie chickens as they woo and stamp and flutter-flight on their traditional booming grounds? Or how about black-billed cuckoos' coo-coo-coo, the rattle calls of the sandhill crane and the croaks and bell-tones of the common raven?

For sure, bird music -- all their calls and all their songs -- are all about us this time of year. Depending on where you go, a different orchestra performing different scores will be performed somewhere on a nearby stage (admission is free) as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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