Marcia Roepke
Trail Time

First Spring, Second Spring, Real Spring?

First Spring came and went, that is, First Spring cam and went and then Second Spring visited briefly. I wonder how many springs we will have this year. The snow is still deep in the woods on the upper Gunflint Trail, and it is icy and grainy and not fun at all to walk on, even in snowshoes. At this point, winter can feel like an unwanted guest.

But spring IS coming! I went out looking for signs of Spring and I spotted tiny Hazel blossoms just starting to peep out. I think they might be our earliest and maybe tiniest spring flower. Even in full bloom, the crimson Hazel flowers measure only about one-eighth of an inch long, looking like strands of saffron. I found Aspens in protected sunny spots with huge yellow spring catkins. Some of the jack pines are showing candles of new growth. Soon we’ll see more green. Today the conifers are lightly dusted with snow.

Southern slopes are melting fast when the sun is out. Today it is 38, and so so many more shades of gray than fifty. It was 51 and sunny yesterday, hallelujah, not 16 and snowing and sleeting like last week, and not 85 like two weeks ago. That weird hot weather precipitated a fast melting and the early arrival of some bird species that were caught in the snow and sleet that followed. The wings of some migrating loons iced up and it was reported in the Wisconsin news that they were falling to earth. The phenomenon is called “Loon Fallout.” Tiny freezing particles in the upper atmosphere cover the loon’s body, making it ice-up just like on an airplane, forcing them to crash land. Loons need 1/4 mile of water to achieve liftoff. Wildlife rescue services were very busy for a few days, one organization logged 27 calls in one day.

Other species that migrated here in First Spring fared better. The early-arriving Juncoes managed to kick up enough food in the duff to sustain themselves, so we’re still seeing them around, doing that two-footed shuffle to dislodge goodies under the dead leaves. They are as entertaining to watch as a cartoon. The White-throated sparrow does the same dance, though there’s been no sighting of them here yet. I think that White-throated Sparrows announce Real Spring when they sing their distinctive song. Most often, I hear them well before I see them, their song re-wakening something in me that slumbers all winter.

I’ve seen some Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers digging in newly-thawed ground. One kept burying his head deep in the ground like an ostrich, then popped up to look around. Maybe he had found a trove of ant larva. He stayed there a long time, mining for food. But a lone Pied-billed Grebe was unluckier, and found no quarter.

The Grebe was delivered to me by concerned neighbors who spotted it wandering on the blacktop on the Trail. There was no open water of any size nearby, save for what was flowing through a culvert. After much debate, and after quickly reading about the species, we finally set free the clearly ailing Grebe. The poor little water bird died that night. I was very surprised to find the body the next morning nestled in dry grass in a protected location, a dead leaf lodged in his beak.

I prepared its body for the freezer and called the DNR to see what needed to happen. Since this bird was in good shape, I thought they might want it for display. Pied-billed Grebes, like the more familiar Loon, are a protected non-game species. They can’t be taken legally. If I had driven the live bird to Lake Superior, it might have had a chance of surviving, but some migrating birds die of starvation if they arrive before their food source is available. The little Grebe’s food was locked under ice.

I now know more about this interesting waterfowl species. At first we thought it was a baby.. But that didn’t make sense; no babies were being hatched here yet with everything still frozen as it was. Also, it was alone, so we thought that was weird. Shouldn’t it be in a flock, a drift or a gaggle? A group of Grebes is actually called a Water Dance, but the Pied-billed Grebe is mostly solitary and secretive except in breeding season.

The Grebe is just so darn cute! The adults all look like babies, since the head is big in comparison to the body. The back feathers that cover up their folded wings look like gray down, so that adds to its babyish looks. One clue that it was an adult was the dark band around the bill which appears during breeding season. It’s really a unique little bird. The beak looks more like a chicken’s and the feet are lobed, not webbed. The legs are set far back on the body like a Loon’s and it is awkward on land. Like the Loon, it’s a great swimmer and diver, but it needs a long runway on water to get into the air. It also has the ability to slowly submerge itself underwater like a submarine by compressing its feathers, which releases trapped air. That ability enables them to stay underwater longer than other species.

Dabchick and Water Witch are two of the Grebe’s nicknames. The Ojibwe word for grebe is zhingibis (szhing – i – BISS). They call it Helldiver and there’s an Ojibwe story about how the Grebe fooled the Spirit of Winter by building a big fire and making Spring come.

May it be so!


~  Marcia Roepke

Please note:  It’s illegal and generally a bad idea for the general public to handle or try to take care of wild animals on their own. Take precautions when handling wild birds who might have HPAI (highly pathogenic Avian Influenza). Use gloves and wash hands thoroughly after handling. Wild birds can be sick and not show symptoms. HPAI can cause illness and death in domestic birds if they are exposed.

If Loons or Grebes are found on land, they really do need help. Wildwoods Wildlife Rehabilitation in Duluth is the best resource to call. Call them at 218-491-3604 or go to their website at