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Northland Nature: A couple flocks of November

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

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Tundra swans as seen in their autumn flight. Contributed / Mark Sparky Stensaas

The day is a “typical” gray November day. We have thick clouds, temperature in the 20s and as the day has progressed, so have the winds. By the time that I step out for a walk, hard-hitting northwest winds are carrying light snow. The day feels colder than what the thermometer says.

Such a day may not seem like a good time for a walk, but this is late November, a time of change, and there is always more to see as autumn begins to prepare for winter.

During a morning walk, I saw movement on the roadside. Here, in a growth of tansies, was a flock of redpolls. Many of these small birds have been reported in the region recently, but this gathering of about 20 is the first that I’ve seen. They were feeding on tansy seeds, but nearby are alders and birches, also with seeds. (Usually, they are late to arrive at bird feeders.)

Moving on past the redpolls, I heard and saw two flocks of Canada geese flying over, heading south. Neither flock was large, but it was great to see them passing over at this time of November, later than normal.

As I walked, I noted the swamp and the nearby pond were both wearing coats of ice and a subsequent dusting of snow. Snow on ice allows for it to be seen well. The adjacent lake is still without ice, even along the edges, but I think the freeze-up, a regular phenomenon of late November, is beginning and it won’t be long before the lake will follow ponds and swamps with an ice cover. With moving waters, river freezing will wait a while, usually in December.

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During the afternoon walk, I see a few chickadees and a couple woodpeckers, but it is wind that provides the sounds until I hear a flock. From high overhead comes the guttural calls of a large group of birds. I recognize these sounds as coming from sandhill cranes. I pause to look up high in the sky.

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A flock of sandhill cranes during migration. Contributed / Mark Sparky Stensaas

The flock of these long-legged birds circles and moves south; I estimate 80-100 birds. They are here every year and some nest in the region. But seeing flocks like this in autumn is quite unusual. I listen and look until this large flock of large birds is far off to the south. Quite a surprise on such a raw November day. I continue my walk.

The route takes me into woods, where I stop to check the ice cover on another pond. I’m standing here when I hear more sounds of note. Looking northwest, I peer through the trees towards where the sound emanates. And I see another loud flock passing over. This one is in a V-shape.

With white bodies, these large birds are identified as tundra swans; I count 60. Nesting in the far north, they now are heading to a resting site along the Mississippi River before continuing east and wintering at Chesapeake Bay. Spring flights may rest in the Northland, but in fall, they only pass over.

I am fortunate to see this flock. A few days ago, I saw their cousins, three trumpeter swans, as well.

Late November is often chilly with periods of snow as we head for deeper cold and snow. It is a time of clouds and freeze-up. But as I see during my walk, it is also a time to see flocks of migrating birds. Whether these birds continue or stay, they make for great watching.

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Larry Weber

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