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Happening NOW: Signs of Spring (and Bomb Cylones!)

Stepping out of my work truck on the side of a snowy, windblown county road in the panhandle of Nebraska, I hear a rising, tittering song originating from somewhere nearby, though its source evades my sight against the wide open blue sky. While the Horned Lark is anything but scarce or unusual in this part of the world—indeed, it is often one of the only species to be found here throughout the desolate winter months—this is the first time in 2019 that I have heard one give the vocalization of its summer display flight. This can only mean one thing…spring has come to the Great Plains.

Of course, singing Horned Larks are far from the only sign of the changing season. Western Meadowlarks now sing boldly from the top of fence posts, a marked change from their sulky winter behavior. The cricket-like calls of Lapland Longspurs have disappeared from the landscape as these birds move north, making room for the calls and songs of the Chestnut-collared and McCown’s longspurs that occupy this area during the summer months. While Rough-legged Hawks still patrol cornfields and perch on every other telephone pole in the panhandle, it will be only a matter of days before they are replaced by their summer counterparts in the form of Swainson’s Hawks.

A flock of Sandhill Cranes at sunset, using a stopover site on the Platte River

This spring has been noteworthy primarily because of the large amount of moisture the Midwest region has seen this spring, with minor depressions in the landscape being filled with water and ice, even before Nebraska was hit with a so-called “bomb cyclone.” This weather system has been blowing up the news cycle of late and resulted in mass flooding across much of eastern Nebraska—in addition to the hurricane force winds that accompanied the storm itself. The timing of the bomb cyclone happened to coincide with peak movement of Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes through their North Platte River stopover habitat, though the exact impact of the storm on these concentrations of birds may not be apparent without formal study. I was forced south to Colorado during the storm, but those birders who remained during the storm were treated to a spectacle of migration. A massive concentration of geese (on the factor of millions) were noted along the Missouri River following the cyclone, a sight I definitely wish I could have witnessed.

Looking forward to the eminent surge in shorebird migration throughout the region, there is sure to be no shortage of stopover habitat throughout this region. However, we may have to wait to determine the exact nature of the birding to be available. As local reservoirs fill to capacity, normal shorebirding hotspots may diminish in quality while the main mass of migrating activity is dispersed across a greater area of mudflats and flooded agricultural fields.

As spring progresses through Nebraska and the rest of the Great Plains, be sure to go birding and submit your observations to eBird! During such years of aberrant weather patterns in the midst of climate change, data produced by birders could be key to unlocking further secrets of avian migration throughout this flyway. This may inform us of how birds such as Snow Geese respond to weather systems like this year’s bomb cyclone. And of course, North American Birds will report on what eventually happens with the shorebird migration, as well as any other related anomalies.

Be sure to comment below and share what bird appearances or behaviors signal the start of spring in your part of the world!

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Marcel Such

Marcel Such

A lifelong birder and alumnus of the American Birding Association’s Young Birder programs, Marcel Such is currently employed as an avian biologist working on Colorado’s eastern plains and Nebraska’s panhandle. When he is not birding for work, he can be found adventuring in pursuit of birds and good trails across the west. Follow his travels and adventures on Instagram, @cursorialbirder.
Marcel Such

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