March 5, 2012

Migrating birds get a jump on spring; many spotted in Kansas

Nestled in the trees throughout Wichita and Kansas, there is a cacophony of sound particularly when the sun sets and rises.

Nestled in the trees throughout Wichita and Kansas, there is a cacophony of sound particularly when the sun sets and rises.

Spring birds are singing, whistling and trilling their boasts of new territories and love.

The first stirrings of the spring migration have begun — in some species a week to 10 days early; and, in others as much as a month.

“Definitely, it’s early,” said Mark Robbins, collection manager of ornithology at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute. “The geese, ducks and so forth began moving forth in January. The eagles were hardly down here this year, many stayed north. It was so mild this winter that many species stayed north.”

For the first time anyone can remember, at least three whooping cranes wintered in Kansas and pushed on north to Nebraska the last week of January — a good month before the earliest cranes usually begin showing up in Kansas, Robbins said.

Greater yellowlegs, a type of shorebird, were spotted at WSU’s field laboratory near Cheney on Feb. 21 — a month before they are traditionally seen, said Christopher Rogers, an associate professor of biological sciences at Wichita State University.

“I think there are a number of species that appear to be early,” Rogers said. “It’s confusing because some winter here and it is hard to tell the early migrants from the smattering of residents.”

Currently, large flocks of waterfowl — snow geese, ducks, Canada geese, sandhill cranes and others are pushing through central Kansas on their way north. Many have already moved on.

Red-winged blackbirds sit atop cattails in salt marshes, perch on utility wires or sweep along in clouds on the back roads.

Bluebirds have been seen at Cheney State Park and Lake Afton.

And, 300 to 400 cormorants were seen Sunday at Twin Lakes in Wichita.

Purple martins have already been spotted in Enid, Okla., said Max Thompson, a Winfield ornithologist.

They are right on time, Thompson said. The average arrival date in Kansas is March 14; the earliest they’ve ever been spotted is March 6. The bulk arrive in late March.

Thompson, one of state’s premier ornithologists, said he believes the migrations are all about right.

“Phoebes have just started showing up as well as shorebirds. Everything is pretty much on track. Bluebirds have wintered here all winter as well as goldfinches. The good weather means the birds are not so stressed out.”

The peak of the spring migration won’t be until the last week of April and the first of May.

In Winfield, chickadees, cardinals and mourning doves, Thompson said, “are going like crazy.”

The birds are affected by the longer days. As the days continue to get longer, “the birds get antsy and more into the breeding fever,” Thompson said.

There is some concern the mild winter may affect the bird populations later on, said Bob Gress, director of the Great Plains Nature Center.

It is too early to know what kind of effect, he said.

In past years with mild winters, it has meant an increase in insects. A few years ago, army cutworm moths were more prevalent.

“During a normal winter, there is die-off and that tends to weed out the weaker of the species,” Gress said. “This year, a lot of things made it through the winter that might not have otherwise.”

Wichitan Pete Janzen, author of "The Birds of Sedgwick County," which details 379 species of birds and their history and habitats within the greater metropolitan area, said he’s seen some species definitely coming earlier.

“Things spend the winter here that didn’t use to,” Janzen said. “Some birds are showing up earlier than they used to.”

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