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Hint of spring can be found on the plains

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By Sylvia Brockner

Friday, Feb. 17, was an amazing day. A friend called to say she wanted to go out on the plains to search for the snowy owl that many have seen just east of Barr Lake and asked if I would like to go with her. She didn’t want to go alone and was willing to put up with me, my oxygen, etc., so I went and had a great day.
First of all, it was a remarkably warm, sunny day for February. It felt like spring. The temperature was in the high 40s, and there was very little wind. It was much better than most February days on the plains when blizzards are not uncommon. Although we never did find the snowy owl, we did see quite a few birds. Shallow melt ponds were filled with water in every low spot on the prairies, and the first of the puddle ducks were beginning to show up.
A nice skein of Canada geese flew into the open water at the south end of Barr Lake, and a few more had been noted in smaller ponds along the highway. These were mostly just black silhouettes as there are few places along the highway that one can pull off to stop and look at these cardboard cutouts floating on the ponds, but just to know they are beginning to head north makes me feel like spring is coming.
As we drove slowly down the dirt roads looking for the snowy owl, we saw other birds, most still in winter plumage. We saw a few red-tailed hawks as we drove. They were making lazy circles on the mild spring breeze, but once out on the prairie road, we saw at least six rough-legged hawks perched on utility poles, watching for mice in the fields. A dark phase rough-legged hawk gave us a good chance to study the different plumage.
Horned larks were in small flocks everywhere. Most were eating weed seeds along the road and anywhere else the snow had melted. As you expect, this time of year, they were the most common bird of the day. We also saw a half-dozen meadowlarks, which looked a bit puzzled about the snow they had landed in and were less than enthusiastic about the ground cover. They were not singing and had less yellow on their breasts than they will have in another month.
However, they didn’t appear to be turning around and heading back south for they have probably done this before and know if they can survive for a few days, the snow will melt and more food will become available. We also found a nice flock of 23 red-winged blackbirds, which were all winter plumage females or juveniles, all in their brown streaked plumage. They were in a big stand of mullein, eating the seeds that were at the top of their sturdy stalks, well above the snow.
Lynne spotted two bald eagles perched on the ice at Barr Lake below the dam where there was some open water. A pair of bald eagles has nested at Barr Lake for several years. These may have been the nesting pair making plans to refurbish their old nest for use again this year, or they could have been migrant birds moving back north. As we were leaving the area, there was a large flock of robins, and an equally large flock of starlings and house sparrows in nearby trees.
Before we got back to the highway, two very nearly white doves flew up from the side of the road. They were so light, I believe they were Eurasian collard doves, but they flew away so fast I couldn’t see if they had black collars. These birds are exotics that came across the Atlantic to South America, then northward to the West Indies and then to Florida. Arriving in Florida about eight years ago, they have spread out all across America westward as far as California and northward to Alaska last year. They are very friendly birds that adapted to life in European yards long ago and have taken readily to our prolific bird feeders.
We didn’t see anything startling or rare, but I was content just to be out birding, and to see meadowlarks and ducks surely made it seem like spring. Thank you, Lynne, for a wonderful day.