The first gurgling of spring
First in a series of four articles on lab ecology.
Male woodcocks show up in the Main Ring in March and April to form mating-display arenas known as "leks."
It's getting more obvious everyday: spring is here. But what are the very early, less obvious signs around the lab that most of us miss?
"I've got one word for you: sex," said Fermilab ecologist Rod Walton. "Everything has to do with mating and getting out there early." Those of us who hurry to our cars in this brisk weather may not have noticed the wood frogs mating in the snow. And the geese have started pairing up, too. Two weeks ago, a pair of Canada Geese reportedly hung out around the auditorium, eyeing an area near the entrance for nesting. "We'll watch them and fence the area off it looks like they are going to nest there," said Dave Shemanske of Roads and Grounds. "It's not good if the birds settle in near doorways, as geese have hostile reactions when people approach their nest."
A sign of spring you will hear but not see are the rust and gray Sandhill Cranes that fly high above Fermilab. As they migrate west from Indiana, their gurgling-trumpeting call carries for miles. "You'll be walking along and hear it, but won't see anything because they are way up in the distance," said Fermilab birder (and physicist) Peter Kasper, who heard the first gurgling of the spring last Thursday.
More obvious signs have also popped up: Mallards swim in pairs, cardinals make what Kasper's wife, Penny, calls a "guinea pig sound," and two weeks ago, the chickadees switched from their classic namesake call to a plaintive, two-note, "dee-deeee" whistle. Kasper has not seen the woodcocks yet, but he expects them soon. The long-beaked, neckless woodcocks spend the dusky hours from March to April inside the Main Ring. Though woodcocks rarely vocalize, their specially adapted wings make plenty of noise. "The males make a 'beep beep' sound just before they take off," said Kasper. "Then they make a roller coaster flight high in the air, and as they dive, they make a 'whoo whooo whooo' noise from their tail and spiral back down with a series of chirping noises. It's one of these semimystical things." Still, his favorite sign of spring comes from the red-winged blackbirds: "You know that spring is here when you hear that first 'koo-koo-ree.' "
You can learn more about recent bird sightings, and find links to organized bird outings, here.