Epaulets of the Prairie

A week or so ago a dear friend excitedly said she had seen her first Redwing Blackbirds of spring in a wetland about an hour downriver from here. It was nice learning of others who see this King of the Cattails as one of the harbingers of spring.

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A murmuration comes into a wetland at Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

Imagine my pleasure a few days later as I settled into one of the Adirondack chairs on the deck with an early afternoon glass of wine to find a small group of them flying from tree to tree, and back again, right in the backyard of Listening Stones Farm, all decked out with their distinctive epaulets ablaze in the warming prairie sun. With the geese and ducks occupying the two nearby wetlands, often lifting in flocks in unison, with a steady honking off in the distance, with the occasional white winged Terns effortlessly drifting by on wings of wind adding another level of punctuation, the entirety making for a sweet and splendid afternoon.

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Part of the grouping of Redwing Blackbirds in the tree next to the studio.

Interestingly, having Redwings in the yard isn’t all that rare. We had even one that continually came to the hanging feeding most of last summer, comically struggling to maintain balance on the little perches while doing birdish-like yoga asthmas while digging for sunflower seeds. Rather than hanging out in one of the nearby wetlands, this male made a home in our lower prairie, perching on a spindly prairie sunflower to call out its throaty, high slurred whistle, “Terrr-eeee! Terrr-eeee!”
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Obviously these are among my favorite birds, although I admit to being rather a fickle lover. Great Blue Herons. White Pelicans, especially in flight. Cedar Waxwings. Redpolls. Any number of warblers. Wild Turkeys. The list continues on and on, and I could make a legitimate argument for each, though no more so than for the Redwing Blackbird.

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A warning given!

Redwing Blackbirds were one of the pure joys of going up to my grandfather’s farm pond as a boy, which was the only pond on the farm at the time with a near full ring of cattails along the edges. Fortunately there were just enough “holes” in the rushes that you could flip a fly to attract a bluegill, or even have an explosion from the top water attack by a largemouth bass if your fly was close enough to the edge of the spindly stalks. Such memories include standing next to my mother as she tossed a cork and worm-ladened hook from her cane pole in the same region. Like being on the deck on this sunny and warmish day, all lovely afternoons well spent. While we fished, Redwings would watch warily, often scolding us angrily.

Redwings are one of the first migrating bird species to arrive each spring, and usually in this part of Minnesota by mid-March. While others express excitement over the first sightings of Robins, my focus was always on Redwings. Unfortunately, they are also one of the first birds to leave in the annual migration to Central America each July. They begin flocking up in mumurations … named, I’m sure, for the sound of the hundreds of birds “murmuring” at once much like the sound one hears at a sports stadium full of humans … to fly from one farmstead grove to another. Along Big Stone Lake, a couple of miles south of the farm, you’ll see vast ribbons of murmurations in August before they suddenly disappear almost as magically as they appear in the spring.

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Finding a nice perch seems to be among the joys as the birds establish a territory.

One of my first “scientific” papers from college was a mapping of Redwing territories on that pond of my grandfather. A couple of years ago when back home going through old boxes after the death of my parents we came across a box of my old magazine articles and newspaper columns my mother had somehow found and collected, stored neatly in a cardboard box. Near the bottom I found the old term paper from my Ornithology class, where the professor wrote, “Interesting, although I am wondering how you were able to distinguish the actual male territories without the aid of banding.” On it was a classic C- grade. As I was told the following semester by forestry professor, “I hate to tell you this, but you are not a scientist. Your mind just works differently.” I’m sure the birdman felt similarly. My mother, and her sister, Helen were the analytical, mathematical types. I was not.

Listening Stones Farm is on the Flyway, and right on the territorial cusp of where the Redwings and Yellow Headed Blackbirds actually mix. It isn’t uncommon to see both species sharing the cattails of a wetland all through this area of the prairie. Both are beautiful birds, and I enjoy making photographs of either. The Yellow Headed are usually late to the party, though.

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A male Redwing in a perfect late afternoon prairie setting next to a wetland in the Clinton Prairie.

As March marches onward, as you drive in the Big Stone Wildlife Refuge, or by any of our nearby wetlands, you will see the male Redwings staking their individual territories, dotting acres of cattails on sentinel stakes above the bent and beat-down stalks from over the winter, those epaulets lighting up the wetlands. Oh but what a welcomed sight after even a mild, short and basically ugly winter.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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