Q: A few years ago, we were camped on an island on the Connecticut River near Bradford, Vt., and witnessed what I can only describe as a blackbird orgy in a one-acre patch of phragmites. I think it was in early May. Absolutely amazing spectacle to see and hear on a quiet spring evening.
I want to try to time it out and see it again. Do you keep track of when the female redwings arrive? I’d love a heads-up since I live on a hilltop and often miss them.
A: Redwings can be offer the greatest excitement for anyone paddling about a marsh, fresh or saltwater, especially during breeding time, and, for that matter, anyone wandering along the shore of a cattail marsh or other wet area where they congregate.
During migration, they can be downright thrilling when they arrive by the dozens, or more likely the hundreds, when the ruckus can be deafening, a reminder of the old Hitchcock film, "The Birds."
It is rather easy to discern between migrating redwings and individuals that have arrived to nest. The former will spook at the slightest disturbance, while the latter, those defending their nesting territory, will act very differently and show little fear. In fact, as the season progresses they will fearlessly defend their territories (plural because, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, "The Red-winged Blackbird is a highly polygynous species, meaning males have many female mates, up to 15 in some cases.")
Depending on source, the females arrive a few days to a couple weeks after the males, although one or two weeks after the females’ arrival becomes the most active time on the marsh, when males will not only chase interlopers, but also their mates. In general, males arrive in March, courtship begins by second or third week of April, nest building a week later, soon followed by breeding.
I have found excited males warning me when I happen to kayak too close to a nest through June. It is most pleasurable to float into the cattails and stay put for a while. After the birds grow used to you, they find something else to worry about; a crow or hawk, or anything else that gets too close. Sometime about mid-July, it suddenly becomes quiet and the birds begin their seasonal molt.
The male red-wing blackbird is easy to identify, being an all-over glossy black with red and yellow shoulder patches. On the other hand, the females are completely different, being streaked with dark and light brown with a lighter breast. At this season, people who still keep mixed seed stocked in their feeders may attract a male redwing or two, especially if the seed is scattered on the ground (no feeder necessary).
It is so important, to start young people early in the enjoyment and understanding of the natural world around them. For North County families, Woodchuck Wednesdays at Sheep Hill in Williamstown may just be the after-school program for your first through fourth graders. Woodchuck Wednesdays first spring session is April 9 and consists of outdoor play, nature discovery and projects designed to get kids outdoors in a fun and interactive way. (Siblings outside the age ranges of enrolled children will be considered). Pre-registration is required and a fee is charged. For information, call (413) 458-2494. Sheep Hill is at 671 Cold Spring Road (Routes 7 & 2), approximately one mile south of the rotary in Williamstown, and is a Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation property.
Questions and comments for Thom Smith: Email Naturewatch@live.com