Harbingers of Spring

Some days the joy of Midewin lies in a long hike. Other days, it’s all about standing in one place and letting nature come to you.

Today is unseasonably warm, even as the late afternoon fades to evening. Standing alone in the middle of South Patrol Road Prairie, I feel myself at the very center of spring as the skies are filled with birds winging their way toward me. Well, not toward me exactly, but rather to the patchwork of wetland areas strewn throughout the recovered prairie.

canada geese 1

In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold observes that “One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.” Today, the sky is teeming with wave upon wave of geese. Canada geese. Flying in from all directions in their tell-tale V formations. Trumpeting their arrival as the heralds of spring.

We wander the sky with many a Cronk

And land in the pasture fields with a Plonk

Hank-hank, Hink-hink, Honk, honk.

Then we bend our necks with a curious kink

Like the bend which the plumber puts under the sink.

Honk-honk, Hank-hank, Hink-hink.

And we feed away in a sociable rank

Tearing the grass with a sideways yank,

Hink-hink, Honk-honk, Hank-hank.

But Hink or Honk we relish the Plonk,

And Honk and Hank we relish the rank,

And Hank or Hink we think it a jink

To Honk, or Hank or Hink!

Actually, this sky song belongs to white-fronted geese. At least according to T.H. White in The Book of Merlyn. (You’ll find it in the chapter in which Merlyn changes the ancient and ailing King Arthur, on the eve of his final battle, into a white-fronted goose to learn their peaceful ways.)

white fronted geese

In counterpoint to the tuneful hinks, hanks and honks are the ribald quacks of mallards. In some circles it’s a sin to anthropomorphize nature, but to me their quacks sound like laughter. Spend a little time around a springtime pond littered with ducks and tell me they’re not telling each other jokes that always begin with “two geese waddle into a bar…”

Quack, quack, quack!


The geese are lovely. The ducks crack me up. But for me the true harbingers of spring are cranes. And earlier than I expected comes the first squadron of the season. Fourteen sandhill cranes. Hovering like Japanese kites. Their wings – more than six feet from tip to tip – like crepe paper. Their chortling calls like toy trumpets.

sandhill crane 1

And in the tall grasses around me, male red-winged blackbirds – arriving before the females to stake out a nesting claim – add their territorial “conk-la-REEE” to the evensong.

red winged blackbird

And is that thumbnail across a comb sound the first chorus frog of the season I hear?

For this. For just this moment is all the effort worth it. The removal of miles of drain tiles, acres of hedgerows, and an elevated rail line. The recountouring of the landscape. Raising seed stock. Harvesting seed. Cleaning it. Planting it. By spreader. By hand. Burning the prairie. Planting more seed. More plugs. Managing for invasives. Expanding into adjacent acreage and repeating the entire process.

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