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35 A Time of Frogs, Toads, and Tiny Flowers It’s still a week until the equinox, the day when thoughts of spring become official if not totally dependable, and when length of daylight and darkness becomes equal. However, this breezy day along the headwaters of Hominy Creek feels very much as if winter has been banished, as south winds coax mid-afternoon temperatures into the sixties. A flock of Harris’s sparrows, eight birds altogether with four showing the black bibs of mature males, is foraging in several elms near steep limestone bluffs bordering the stream. At this time of the year, the oval seeds on the trees are dull green and easily mistaken for the early leaves that won’t actually appear until April. The density of the seeds gives the valley a green tint that corresponds to the increased bird activity. Harris’s sparrows are large members of their tribe, somber in black and brown feathers and sounding a bit melancholy due to the minor key whistles that provide an audible link to the group’s social order.The birds winter in the south-central United States and nest on the tundra in northern Canada. Their bills are pinkish, and their black crowns and bibs contrast with the chestnut brown backs and white breasts. Wingspans may reach to 10.6 inches, with an overall body length of as much as 7.9 inches. 36 A Time of Frogs,Toads,and Tiny Flowers Harris’s sparrows hang around into May here on the southern prairies, giving the frozen north a chance to thaw before they begin their spring migration. Due to the remoteness of the birds’ breeding ground, no one knew exactly where they reared their young until ornithologist and bird artist George Miksch Sutton found a nest near Churchill, Manitoba, in 1931. The oldest males in each flock are generally dominant and also show the greatest amount of black in their bibs. Dominant males are afforded the best opportunities for foraging and roosting sites. The mellow whistles, earthy beauty, and apparent gentleness of these sparrows have earned them many fans among birders, including people who travel great distances to add this long-distance traveler to their life list. The warming afternoon has summoned another birdlike voice from the pools bordering the main channels of the stream.Strecker’s chorus frogs, stubby, toadlike little creatures that can grow up to an inch and a half long, tend to be early breeders and may begin to call following thunderstorms as early as February. From a distance the summons seems high and shrill and almost supernaturally loud, considering the size of the callers.But when you draw closer,the high-pitched pleading contains a noticeable hoarseness plus a back-and-forth, pulleylike separation of phrases. Chorus frogs must attract mates, breed, and have their eggs hatch and their tadpoles mature before spring pools dry up during summer. Therefore, the alacrity in their calls represents notes forged in biological earnestness and evolution. Eastern bluebirds are also early nesters, and this afternoon at least six males are vocally marking their territory amid a post oak grove not far from the stream. The grove contains several standing dead trunks with holes excavated by woodpeckers. Some of the fire-killed trunks contain as many as four excellent nesting cavities. The gentle bluebird of folklore and human fancy is as different from the creature dwelling in these hollowed-out oaks as a Tyrannosaurus rex is from a teddy bear. In reality these handsome little prairie dwellers mainly represent survival of the fittest, and they jockey and battle for nesting territory like blue-clad gladiators.Eye-appealing they may well be, but they’re all bird below those lovely feathers and borderline reptilian in their quest to eat, mate, rear young, and stay alive while they do it. 37 A Time of Frogs,Toads,and Tiny Flowers I once watched a male bluebird go after a small lizard, a juvenile five-lined skink that wandered into the open at an inopportune time. The bird spotted the dark reptile with its bright blue tail, an appealing appendage designed as a predator target, a fleshy extension engineered to break away under duress while allowing the young skink to flee unscathed. But this bluebird was much too experienced for that ruse. He grabbed the skink mid-body, battered it against a rock, then tore it in half, offering a portion to his mate. T. rex itself couldn’t have...


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