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Always in Season: Signs of spring appear in the valley

Horned larks are back in the valley.

Horned owls are back on their nests.

These are signs of spring in the Red River Valley.

Both are right on time.

Horned larks are among the earliest spring migrants here, and great horned owls are the earliest nesters.

Great horned owls are usually on nests by late February, and this year is not an exception. Reports of nesting owls began about a fortnight ago.

These owls are "platform nesters," and they occupy platforms constructed by other species, especially hawks and crows. Hawks will surrender their nests to the larger, more offensively armed owls, but crows harry the owls, sometimes driving them away from nests.

Horned owl nests are often found in rural shelterbelts, but the birds also nest in the forest along the Red River, including the city of Grand Forks itself. In especially favorable habitat, nesting density may reach one per square mile. It's considerably less in our area; the Red River Valley simply doesn't have enough trees or enough prey species to support a large great horned owl population.

Great horned owls are our most lethal predators. They can take prey as large as gray squirrels, which weigh almost as much as the owl itself. Neither squirrel nor rabbit is safe inside an owl's hunting territory.

Other birds, however, don't appeal so much to owls.

Horned larks

For their part, horned larks are more peaceable birds. They occur in widely dispersed flocks, giving one another plenty of personal space.

Horned larks are birds of empty landscapes, and open space is characteristic of the Red River Valley.

Really open.

This suits horned larks well. They require little in terms of shelter, showing up in bare fields and along roadsides. There they glean whatever seeds they find spilled.

The horned larks are early migrants partly because they are tough birds, well able to survive wind and late snow.

But they also don't have far to go. Horned larks spend the winter just south of the snow line. In many years, this means areas just to the west and south of the valley. This year, the snow line extended farther south. Southwestern North Dakota had heavy snow much of the winter.

As soon as bare patches appear in the snow, the horned larks appear in the landscape. This brought them into the valley about mid-February, perhaps a few days later than usual. Last year, I saw horned larks for the first time during the first week in February; this year, my first horned lark was spotted Feb. 12.

The horned lark is a member of the lark family, unlike the meadowlark, North Dakota's state bird, which is more closely related to the blackbirds. Blackbirds are New World birds. The larks are an Old World family. In fact, the horned lark is the only lark family member native to the Western Hemisphere. One other, the skylark, has become established in some areas. It was introduced by the same literary enthusiasts who brought us the house sparrow in an effort to make every bird mentioned by Shakespeare at home in North America.

Shakespeare's lark

As it happens, the horned lark could serve quite well as Shakespeare's lark. Like the skylark, it is an accomplished singer, producing what is often and well described as "a sweet and delicate tinkling." Others, less charitably, suggest it sounds like a squeaky fence. Both of these descriptions occur in the monograph on the species, part of "The Birds of North America." Published by the American Ornithologists' Union, this series is my go-to source for information about North American birds.

The horned lark occurs across the continent, except in wooded areas. Even there, it is among the first birds to show up when landscapes are cleared. Thus, it is more widespread now than it probably was before European settlement.

The horned lark and the horned owl are not alone among the avian signs of spring.

Bald eagles seem more numerous this year than I remember them being. This may be due partly to the fact that I am driving back and forth to Bismarck on a weekly basis, and so I see eagles along the roadsides, feeding on roadkill exposed by the ongoing thaw.

Official statistics show an increasing population of eagles, however, and nesting eagles are becoming more frequent.

Eagles are platform nesters. They add material to their nests year after year.

Perhaps some returning eagles will find that horned owls have moved in.