Birds, butterfly appearances mark the early return of spring?

It was a Valentine’s Day surprise when my wife, Peggy, spied a buzzard circling over Muskellunge Creek just east of Froggy Bottom, our rural Sandusky County homestead.

That is the earliest we can recall seeing these welcome emissaries of spring in our bailiwick in our 42-plus years of residence here, fully a week sooner than other mild Februarys and easily a month before the much-ballyhooed March 15 “official” return of buzzards to the rocky ledges near Hinckley, Ohio, south of Cleveland.

In truth, the Hinckley buzzards’ tale is in the same league with Phil the Groundhog of Punxsutawney, Pa., and Groundhog Day. They are quaint folklore that helps winter-weary folk endure a little more cold, damp, Midwest winter while thinking of spring and going fishing, doing gardening, or just walking in sun-dappled woods.

World birding authority Kenn Kaufman, who is associated with Black Swamp Bird Observatory, of Oak Harbor, Ohio, notes that a handful of buzzards, or turkey vultures, are known to hang around the Akron area all winter. But for northwesterly Ohio latitudes, our Valentine’s Day bird is an early scout, come to stake out summer roosting territory for the flocks to come in the coming weeks’ migrations. Kaufman noted that some black vultures — the smaller, shorter-necked cousin of turkey vultures — and a few turkey vultures usually can be seen year-round roughly from Columbus latitudes on south. In other words, those birds are residents, and do not migrate like others among their ranks.

We have seen a lot, buzzardwise, in 42 years here. In early years buzzards were so people-wary that a trip to the mailbox would spook them off a roadkill feast more than a quarter mile away. Now they are so familiar and casual with humans and motor vehicles that you have to honk them off the dead opossum to avoid turning them into roadkill. And they seem to return earlier each winter, particularly the mild ones, of which there seem to be more in recent years.

ANOTHER MIGRATION that will not reach Ohio till early May at the soonest and more likely in June already has gotten under way down in the central mountains of Mexico. This will be the famous flight of the familiar, orange-and-black monarch butterflies. It takes two to four generations of monarchs, depending on conditions each spring, for them to reach Ohio latitudes.

Monarch numbers are down 27 percent from the winter of 2016, but up from a record low in 2014. These large-winged insects cluster densely by the millions in mountain-forest in Mexico. This winter’s clusters covered 7.19 acres, compared to some 10 acres a year ago and just 0.67 acre in 2014.

In any case, expect monarch populations to fluctuate somewhat because of weather conditions. A mild autumn helped them this time around, for example. But scientists and naturalists hoping to conserve the species say that at least 15 acres of monarch clusters each winter in the Mexican highlands are necessary to declare a recovery.

Illegal timbering in Mexico is one problem, but so are widespread pesticide use and habitat losses throughout the migration route and breeding grounds through the central and eastern United States and southern Canada.

The species is totally dependent on milkweed for its life cycle, and milkweed has been decimated by the plow, the mowing machine, and pesticides. The question remains whether conservation efforts — habitat restoration, including reduced mowing of roadsides, changes in agricultural practices, and replanting of milkweed — sufficiently counterbalance the losses.

 

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