A hunched up, bunched up Sir Grumpus sat in a tree outside my front door.
He was in a foul mood, impatient for spring. I shared his temper. Sir G’s official (Latin) name is Turdus migratorius, though his presence here through the winter belies his moniker. Grumpus chose not to migrate last fall. His common name is the American robin. Failure to migrate costs many birds their lives. Not my red-breasted friend.
Robins commonly over-winter in Billings - especially during mild winters. Anyplace with open water and ample food may tempt robins to forgo migrations. My neighborhood qualifies. The Conoco Refinery, with its large undeveloped backyard salted with warm water ponds and Russian olive groves, will often support winter flocks of 100 or more.
Other non-migrating robins chatter in both back and front yard. Several times a day one or more will land in Sir G’s tree. They flutter from branch to branch, loosing a chorus of half-witted clucks.
Sir G usually drives them away without leaving his perch. A torrent of angry clucks and squawks puts most of them to flight. The head bull goose robin greets those that refuse to leave with an attack that sends both rivals tumbling toward the ground. The invader flies away and G returns to his perch.
Neither Sir G nor I wait for warmer weather. I wait for birds and wildflowers, flocks and meadows full. That’s my idea of spring. G waits for robins with brick-colored breasts. Females, that is.
Female robins, red-winged blackbirds, meadowlarks and other species fly south earlier and return later than males. G will become even more ferocious and aggressive when the ladies appear. G and his wife will build a heavy nest of mud and twigs.
Amateur naturalists may find three or four robin nests, built in consecutive years and stacked one atop another. Once, I found a set of six inside a tumble-down homestead cabin on a small shelf mounted over an ancient wood stove. They were arranged in a squat pyramid with three in the bottom row, two in the middle and one topping the lot.
Nests in clumps are not rare. Flocks of colonial cliff swallows will build scores of gourd-shaped adobe nests under bridges or in the shelter of an overhang on a sandstone cliff. Several tiny hummingbird nests, lined with spider web, are sometimes found on a low branch.
I wonder if these are built by pairs that return each year or are the same nesting sites attracting more pairs. I suspect the first option is more likely.
I broke away from my keyboard to check Grumpus’ temper and caught him screaming at several young males. Who needed G’s blahs; I had blahs of my own. Faithful migrants awaited discovery. Firing up my truck, I got out of Dodge.
Our state bird sounds the sweetest notes of spring. Usually I find a meadowlark by mid-March. April caught me playing hermit. Rolling down Rimrock Road, I headed for Molt. Just past that hamlet, I came to a place Billings birders call “the corral ponds.” Meadowlarks seemed to cover every other fence post. The yellow-breasted virtuosos warmed my heart and cheered my soul. It was better than my birthday.
On the way home a mountain bluebird flashed me on the Echo Canyon hill. Mountain blues usually arrive here in February. I missed more than a month’s worth this year. It won’t happen again.
Flocks of red-winged blackbirds should come next. Redwings will begin building nests as soon as the dull brownish females arrive a couple of weeks later. Yellow-headed blackbirds will arrive in mid April.
Redwing males will claim small territories in the cattails growing from shallow water. Yellowheads prefer bull rushes growing in water a bit deeper and will drive red wings from the spots they choose.
Meadowlarks will not nest until the grass tops 6 inches. Even then they will wait for the first hatch of grasshoppers. Hoppers are the high protein food meadowlark hens need to produce eggs.
Mountain blues will hang out in the sagebrush prairies for a few more weeks before pairing off and flying off to build nests in the mountains.
Not expecting to find wildflowers, I looked anyway. In sagebrush country I found a single tiny yellow flower – a sage buttercup. It wasn’t much, but it was plenty. A sure signal of a great year coming.