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Meadowlark spotting: Western meadowlark seen in February almost a month earlier than normal

NDGF Department Courtesy Photo The western meadowlark has been spotted in North Dakota in February. The meadowlark is the state bird and normally doesn't arrive until March.

The winter in western North Dakota this season has been unusual and when one strange things happens it's a domino effect that more are set to follow.

On Feb. 19, John Heiser, a Badlands naturalist that works in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, saw a western meadowlark.

"Never in my life of recording birds have I seen a meadowlark that early," Heiser said. "That's a record."

The North Dakota state bird, which normally arrives back home in the early parts of March, was seen almost a month early.

"It's certainly early for something like that," said Stan Kohn, North Dakota Game and Fish Department upland game management supervisor.

Heiser has been spotting birds since the 1970s. The first meadowlark he spotted last year was on March 28.

"I've kept track of birds since I was in ornithology class at Dickinson State University many years ago," he said. "A year ago, the first meadowlark showed up on March 28, which is actually later than normal, because of the brutal winter."

There's one main factor that could be a result of seeing the migration of the meadowlark early in North Dakota -- no harsh winter.

"Anytime you have a mild, open, snowless winter like we have that encourages birds to migrate back here earlier than they normally would," Heiser said. "On the other hand, now birds are getting to be due or overdue, because of the last week or so of cold weather."

Despite the lack of snow and above-average temperatures, Kohn said migration has started, but not to the extent that all birds are flying back from winter vacation.

"It has started to happen, but it hasn't started here in North Dakota," Kohn said. "There's a lot of stack into Nebraska and northern Kansas. No snow geese or anything like that have gone past that point."

Heiser is out in the field jotting down notes. He's seen grasshoppers and saw ants Tuesday. One of the first species that Kohn said usually arrives in North Dakota is the great horned owl, then its hawks. The weather can affect migration patterns, but a majority of birds won't jump snowlines.

"The weather up here isn't as crucial yet at this point," Kohn said. "It could be really nice weather up here, say South Dakota has a lot of snow on the ground, the birds don't normally jump over a snowline like that and move ahead of it."