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Prime Time: Birds: Residents, transients and migrants

"The juncos are back!" sounds like a joyful shout, especially from a birdwatcher. Actually, it depends on the time of year and the birdwatcher's attitude.

Juncos are transients, nesting mostly north of here and wintering mostly south of here. In spring, they signify coming warm weather, but in fall, a long Minnesota winter. (Maps show breeding and wintering ranges overlapping in north-central Minnesota, but I've seen them here only as spring and fall transients.)

This fall, I first logged several juncos Sept. 28, and a crowd Sept. 30. You can tell males from females, and there is some variation in color. Back East, most male juncos are black and white, with maybe a trace of brown in the white belly feathers. Females are less striking than males. Out West, and long considered a separate species, male Oregon Juncos have reddish brown backs and buffy sides, in contrast to the eastern Slate-Colored Junco. They are now all one species, Northern Juncos. Those in my backyard vary a good deal, most leaning more toward Slate-Colored rather than Oregon plumage.

Another ground-feeding seed eater and spring and fall transient, but with no overlap in breeding and wintering ranges, is Harris's Sparrow. The birds breed mostly west of Hudson's Bay and north of tree-line, and winter from southwestern Minnesota and southeastern South Dakota to coastal Texas. I'd never seen more than two at a time until fall 2011. They are large, as big as Fox Sparrows, and are in the same genus as White-Throated and White-Crowned Sparrows. Harris's is said to be the only bird that breeds nowhere but in Canada.

I had seen Harris's sparrows only a few times over the years, both when we lived on Upper Calihan and here in The Meadows, and only in the spring. However, I saw one last Sept. 24 feeding on the berm among some Chipping Sparrows. Didn't recognize it at first. Spring adults have a striking black crown, face and bib, but fall crowns are brown, and the only black is a spotty bib.

On Oct. 1, I saw a Harris's twice, perhaps the same one each time, this time in the company of juncos. I'd scattered some bird seed near the house to bring the juncos in closer to the suspended feeder. Last year, a few juncos actually fed up on the feeder, but none have this fall.

Scads of juncos continued to feed on the lawn from late September into early October. Since none of them had been color-banded, there was no way to tell if these were the same birds hanging around in the unseasonably warm weather, or new flocks passing through. On Oct. 7, and again Oct. 8, there was one Harris's sparrow among the juncos. I was beginning to think one juvenile Harris's sparrow had mistakenly gotten imprinted on adult juncos on their breeding grounds northwest of Hudson's Bay. There were a few juncos Oct. 9, but none that afternoon, or the next day. That group seemed to have gone south.

Two days later, there were scads of juncos again, this time accompanied by several Harris's sparrows, and some white-throated sparrows. That shot down the imprinting hypothesis; Harris's sparrows in small numbers just accompany flocks of juncos during the fall migration. There were still juncos around Oct. 13 when I left the house to drive to Aardahl Lutheran Church for lutefisk, lefse and Swedish meatballs (all introductions from Europe). Juncos and Harris's are strictly New World natives, except for accidentals that get blown overseas. In 2010, I first saw fall juncos Sept. 23 and last saw them Nov. 8.

Many species that nest here also nest farther north, so resident birds may move south and be replaced by transients from Canada. Flickers are large woodpeckers who feed mostly on ants on the ground, rather than peck insects out of trees. At The Meadows, I rarely see them until the fall transients come through. I first saw three Sept. 22, and soon was seeing several at a time. Within a week, flickers had disappeared.

Among Bemidji's best known birds are American Robins ("American" to distinguish them from Old World Robins, small members of the same family that winter in Britain. We see robins all summer, but our summer residents are mostly long gone. On Oct. 9 at 6:50 p.m., I walked out over the berm to check for deer, and saw a dozen or more robins clustered on its north side. I suspect these were transients from Canada.

This essay should be in my editor's email before Halloween. There will be occasional juncos and robins around for a while, and ring billed gulls, but the bulk of the transients have gone south. Our own "snowbirds" will soon follow.

Evan Hazard, a retired Bemidji State University biology professor, also writes "Northland Stargazing" the fourth Friday of each month.