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MARTHA SEZ: This spring is for the birds

March 30, 2017
By MARTHA ALLEN , Lake Placid News

The redwinged blackbirds are back! I first noticed them yesterday. If you have noticed a lot of birds hanging out in the trees and making a big racket, that's who it is.

With the advent of blackbird season we may be losing the great gray owl, the new kid on the block who has been such a tourist draw on Lime Kiln Road near the Barkeater Inn in Keene over the last month. As spring approaches, the owl is likely to head north to breed in Finland, Estonia, Alaska or northern Canada.

The great gray owl inhabits coniferous, mountainous Northern lands with open, rodent-rich meadows. Find the northern Rockies on a globe and spin it toward the east. Observe Manitoba, where the GGO is the provincial bird. Keep spinning to Scandinavia, where there is a large GGO population, through Asia.

The GGO feeds on small mammals which he hears tunneling under the snow. This owl sits in one spot for some time, then flies, dives, and captures its prey, some hapless rodent, around these parts most likely the northern short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda).

While the GGO is a permanent resident, not a migratory species, when the snow is too deep, muffling the sound of the rodents' shuffle, or when for some other reason food is scarce, "individuals from northern populations of this elusive raptor wander south to the northern U.S. and southern Canada, often in considerable numbers and always to the delight of birdwatchers. A single Great Gray Owl wintering on a farm in Massachusetts for two months in 1973 attracted at least 3,000 birdwatchers," according to a report by Evelyn L. Bull and James R. Duncan.

Here in Keene, local residents of the area where the GGO has been sojourning were able to observe it for a week or two before word got out. Then birdwatchers from New York City, Canada, Connecticut and other states and provinces began converging on the area. At times local traffic has been impeded by parked cars and cameras and scopes on tripods in the middle of Lime Kiln Road.

The redwinged blackbird lacks the exotic appeal of the GGO, but every year I wait and watch for its return to Keene Valley. The earliest incoming date I've recorded is March 9. This year is the latest; I didn't see them or hear their distinctive burbling chirp until March 27.

For those of us who live here, way up North, the first sign of spring is the steam issuing forth from the sugarhouses where maple sap is being boiled into syrup. Cold nights, warm days-that's what makes the sap run. When we say "warm days," we are speaking relatively, of course. The arrival of the blackbirds, with their attendant starlings and cowbirds, is the second reliable sign that spring is on its way.

The word harbinger used to refer to people who came ahead to secure lodging for groups who were on their way, and this archaic definition is apt for redwinged blackbird males, who migrate North before the females in order to establish their nesting territories. When the females arrive, sometimes as many as 15 nest in one male's domain, which he guards fiercely against intruders large and small. Nevertheless, ornithologists have determined through DNA testing that a quarter to a half of the eggs laid in nests in his territory are not his offspring. It's a wise child who knows its father.

Which brings us to Ancestry.com.

I have been anxiously waiting and watching my e-mail for my results from Ancestry.com since January, and I finally got them yesterday, the same day I welcomed those dilatory blackbirds.

I wanted to have Jewish roots. DNA, or "blood," as my grandmother would have called it. If someone with Scottish heritage went wrong, she would act all surprised and say that it was a pity, since he had good blood.

And Indians. I so wanted to have Native Americans in the family tree, but my results read zero.

When my brother Bill told me his Ancestry.com results a month or so back, he rattled off British, Irish, Western Europe-the expected- and then added "and a dab of Native American." I was over the moon. Really? We have Native blood?

But no. Now he says "That was an alternative fact. I guess, like you, I really wanted that to be true."

So oh well. I don't have to go find myself after all.

Have a good week.

 
 

 

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