Last year I heard my first-of-year killdeer repeating its name as a call ("killdeer, killdeer, killdeer") as it flew overhead March 7 in the Waconia, Minn., area.

This year an unusually early migrating killdeer was screeching "killdeer" over the Hastings area Feb. 20, our fourth-consecutive day with high temperatures way above normal. Killdeers spend winter in the southern United States and into Mexico, and the first ones normally return to the Twin Cities area by mid-March. This migrant is another harbinger of spring.

The killdeer is easily recognized by its distinct color pattern. It is olive-brown on its upper body and pure white on the lower, with two black bands across the breast. It is the size of a robin, with long legs that are used extensively for running. The bird holds its body rigid when its runs, its legs a blur of motion. When standing, the bird teeters or bobs. Killdeers are shorebirds, but they are often seen far from water, in plowed fields, pastures and short-grassed meadows and on golf courses. Killdeers are common everywhere but deep forests.

The early returners frequently encounter belated winter weather with snow and freezing days and nights. They usually endure the cold surprisingly well, but since their diet is made up almost entirely of insects, finding food on cold spring days is a real job for them.

Jim Gilbert's Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. He is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.