Ongoing Series: Real Life on the North Shore
by Jane Johnson, Becketwood Member
I’ll be honest—for most of my life I hadn’t given gulls and crows much thought. I’m more of a colorful warbler kind of girl. However, after we moved to the North Shore in retirement, I became more aware of both. Crows and gulls are harbingers of spring.
A few years ago, a neighbor of mine commented in a cheery voice around the end of February, “spring is coming—the crows are back!” What? I looked around and saw heaps of snow everywhere. We had March yet to come—not my favorite month, with its dirty snow and harsh wind. I thought she was being overly optimistic. I didn’t even know that the crows had left. Now I know they do. They probably don’t go far—maybe from the North Shore down to south Minneapolis, where we see them congregating in the fall and winter near Becketwood. In Tofte last fall, Ken and I counted flocks of hundreds of crows at a time flying south. We know crows are among the most intelligent of birds, and we wondered what that meant about the coming winter. We brought in more firewood. And truth to tell, although we have ravens all winter, we didn’t see more than one or two crows until the end of February.
About the same time that the crows returned, I started to see gulls again. We live not far from the Cook County garbage transfer and recycling site. In the summer we see gulls all day long making the circuit from down on the shore up to this site. They supplement their Lake Superior diet with garbage. I do bird counts on our walks. The gull numbers in summer can be 30 plus. By Christmas, there are none. I saw the first gulls again this year on March 2.
Last summer, I went to a presentation by renowned Minnesota birder, Bob Janssen. Apparently, when he was teaching ornithology, to call a bird a “seagull” was an automatic fail in the class—same as if you called a goldfinch a “canary.” Gulls are specific species. Here, most are ring-billed and herring gulls, although last spring I was lucky enough to see a Bonaparte’s gull.
Last year, spring came early. By April 9th, 2017, we had seen gold-crowned kinglets, fox sparrows, flickers, woodcocks, merlins, song sparrows and mourning cloak butterflies.
This winter the crows called it right. As late as April 8 we woke up to minus 2 degrees, and there was a blizzard on the horizon. As I finish writing this, it’s April 20th. Very few spring migrants are back in Tofte. I’ve seen one turkey vulture, two robins, five juncoes and a beautiful male sapsucker. On our walk today we saw our first butterflies—I think they were Milbert’s Tortoiseshells, which are one of the earliest butterflies in our area. As I do bird counts and enter them in the eBird website, I’m documenting spring in the Northland. Each day as I go out the door, I feel like a child on Christmas—looking forward to the next gift!
People often ask us what we do up north all winter: well, I’ll tell you - we count crows and appreciate every sign of spring.