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Flight Lines: A week of wonder as spring migrants invade

Snow geese by the hundreds of thousands were reported all across North Dakota last week, including these birds over West Fargo. Keith Corliss/The Pioneer

Initially, I found it odd that a coworker would call me during evening hours. Odd, that is, until he asked the question.

Breathing heavily from a late day walk, he blurted, "What's with all the robins?" When things that usually go unnoticed by the general public get attention, you know there's something pretty special taking place.

I did a little data mining from the two local online bird discussion groups I belong to, one representing all of North Dakota, the other, Fargo-Moorhead. There were 67 messages posted to the North Dakota bulletin board in the month of March (accessed at Last week alone, there were 54. And these were not the garden variety I've-got-a-blue jay-at-my-feeder type of message either. No, nearly all were reporting on the influx of newly arrived species for the year, or just the huge numbers of migrants being seen.

A student from Valley City State University made it home to Bismarck for the weekend but stopped first at McKenzie Slough. He wrote, "When I finally got to the slough area there was an extraordinary number of birds."

A woman living along a lake in Jamestown made note of the movement too, "Spiritwood Lake is very active with migration now."

Similarly, a couple from Maryland drove across the state to reach relatives in Minot before posting the following, "The sheer volume of geese moving through North Dakota is jaw-dropping."

The spike in observations was equally apparent on the Fargo-Moorhead group (look for "fmbirders" in Yahoo groups). March saw a total of 25 messages posted to the bulletin board. Last week, there were 27 in spite of the energy and attention paid to flood fighting.

Here's an example of one: "Large number of Canada geese in the flooded fields with greater white-fronted (geese) mixed in with them."

Birds of a feather flock together

In addition to the very apparent movements of waterfowl, there were early species of all sorts making strong showings in the area.

A pair of trumpeter swans made an appearance in a field east of Harwood. Two mountain bluebirds stayed a couple of days near the West Fargo Stockyards. Several flocks of migrating sandhill cranes were heard and seen far overhead. Fox sparrows appeared all over town in heavy cover. Red-tailed hawks were seen everywhere, as well as the first few turkey vultures. And the usual first flycatcher - Eastern phoebe - showed up.

One species, in particular, raised a few eyebrows among local experts - American woodcock. This is a secretive species that can be very difficult to find in North Dakota. Yet reports of this bird seemed to come from all over the area (including my own back yard in West Fargo).

Grand Forks resident, David Lambeth, has been watching birds in the state for decades. Just when you think someone like him would have seen just about everything, enter last week's woodcock invasion. He made note of it after totaling up his and other's sightings early last week, "This makes a grand total of 28, which is an unprecedented number for our area."

All this points to a rather logical question: Why? Of course the real answer is mostly unanswerable. Only the birds know for sure. We can make assumptions based upon observations. But to draw concrete conclusions is, well, guessing.

They were south of us. That much was confirmed by reports from other states. Apparently the gathering storm of migrants just couldn't resist the ancient rhythms of the ages and pushed into the state in droves aided by a steady and strong southeast wind. Hormones, day length, and whatever other impulses drive migration, all kicked into high gear for a rapid leap, bringing the masses one step closer to northern breeding territories; despite the mostly still-frozen landscape awaiting them in North Dakota.

Moorhead's Dennis Wiesenborn, a local bird-watching veteran, noted, "At times, the sky was dotted with birds in every direction, and included many large flocks of robins, plus grackles, killdeer, blackbirds and juncos." Just how large were the flocks of robins? So large they stirred a non-birding cohort into making a phone call. That's saying something.