Spring Birds of Ohio (March, April, May)
If a poll were taken among our bird watchers, asking what the best season is, spring would no doubt be the hands down winner. Ohio winters can seem interminably long, cold, and punishing, and the first signs of spring are eagerly sought. By late February, those who are in tune with nature’s subtle signs begin to notice the initial, earliest evidence that winter’s mantle is lifting. Botanically, it is the flowering of our first native wildflower, the fetid-smelling skunk cabbage. These odd plants are in such a rush to push out of the soggy quagmires in which they grow that they actually produce enough heat to melt the snow from around their spathes. The first warm snaps stimulate red maples and American elms to burst into bloom, giving the trees a reddish blush of color.
Although bird migration takes place in some form every month of the year, in spring it becomes much more pronounced in early spring than in any other season. Perhaps one of the earliest and most obvious avian indicators are waterfowl. Our hardiest species, like the American goldeneye, begin courtship antics in February. The drakes start engaging in their amusing water dancing to impress the females, while it’s still so cold that human observers shiver hopelessly. One of our fiercest predators, the great horned owl, is the earliest Ohio bird to begin nesting, and females can even be sitting on eggs as early as February. If February’s waning days get warm enough, the first tree swallows will appear in southern Ohio following the river and streams as the migrate northward. Blackbirds begin to become conspicuous, and the raspy song of red-winged blackbirds starts to be heard in the wetlands.
Spring is not really in the air until March, though, when new influxes of birds can’t be missed. As the ice that had cloaked our marshes and wetlands thaws, the dabbling ducks come pouring in—American wigeon, green-winged teal, black duck, and others. It’s good to keep an eye to the sky, too, as this is the peak month for raptors winging their way north. Flights can be fantastic, especially along Lake Erie, when March days with southern breezes bring lots of red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, along with lesser numbers of other species. Of course, turkey vultures begin to become widespread; in fact, the village of Hinckley honors their return with the annual Buzzard’s Day festival every March 15th. A real treat for many birders is the return of that odd sandpiper, the American woodcock. By mid-March, they are back in force, and the males start wooing potential mates with their aerial skydancing.
Toward the end of the month, the earliest warblers begin to appear in the southern part of the state. Pine warblers are one of the first, and their musical trills begin to be heard along the pine-capped ridges of the southeastern hill country. Not long after, the first Louisiana waterthrushes show up, having made the journey back from their Central American wintering grounds, and their clear, ringing songs reverberate along small streams. Chipping sparrows are another reliable harbinger of spring, returning faithfully each year in March, lending their dry trills to the backyard sounds of suburbia. They are joined by pronounced flights of American robins picking over the lawns in search of earthworms.
April sees an exponentially increasing stream of birds—both in numbers and diversity. The fair-weather birders really start to experience spring fever, and days grow steadily warmer and longer. Early April is a good time to visit the hemlock gorges of the Hocking Hills and renew old acquaintances. The early returnees there include black-throated green warbler, blue-headed vireo, and blue-gray gnatcatcher. April is the month for returning broad-winged hawks, and also in the forest, ruffed grouse are drumming and the male wild turkeys are gobbling.
Wetlands also become more active in April; the first green herons return, and sora and Virginia rails start to turn up in numbers, along with other strange marsh skulkers like common moorhen. Shorebirds appear in greater and great numbers, like solitary sandpiper, both yellowlegs, and pectoral sandpiper. Overhead, small flocks of Forster’s terns and Bonaparte’s gulls course over the wetlands in their graceful, buoyant way.
In many a birder’s eyes, though, May is the month. This is when the major action occurs, and the floodwall bursts, allowing colorful waves of warblers, tanagers, orioles, and other neotropical migrants to tumble into Ohio. Catch the right day—what is termed a “fallout”—and you are in for a stupendous spectacle that will never be forgotten. When weather conditions coincide with enormous flights of northbound songbirds and force them down en masse, good birding hotspots seem to drip with birds. There is no better place to observe this than along the famous “bird trail” at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area on the shores of Lake Erie. Some May days, it seems like every tree and shrub is festooned with colorful American redstarts, rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, and Baltimore orioles.
Another fantastic spot to capture May’s avian glamour is Shawnee State Forest. While the sprawling woodlands seemed quiet and leafless scant weeks ago, now the trees are full of singing territorial birds. This is the first place in Ohio that many of our long-distance migrants appear, and by May more than 20 species of warblers are once again abundant, along with a whole host of other forest birds. The early riser will get the most out of the birding experience here; the dawn chorus is unbelievable!
Partly because May brings such a rush of migrant birds, and partly because there are so many birders afield seeking them, this is also a month for rarities. Probably the entire population of the endangered Kirtland’s warbler travels through Ohio heading to and from their Michigan breeding grounds, and almost all our records are from May. This month always has an underlying sense of the thrill of fantastic discoveries, and it seldom disappoints. One year, it was long-billed curlew, another May brought a very rare scissor-tailed flycatcher. This month never slips by way without some mega-rarity shocking the birding community.