Spring Birds of Georgia (March, April, May)
Bird watching in Georgia is exciting all year, but this is the season that is really spectacular! All the birds are in their spiffiest plumage, and they are singing their heads off. Spring generally runs from March to May, but in reality the first stirrings of spring are in February.
The beginning of March brings the first little wave of migrants to the south coast and southeastern part of the state, and leading the way are blue-gray gnatcatchers and northern parulas, closely followed by white-eyed vireos. A few of the gnatcatchers and vireos winter in Georgia, but their numbers dramatically increase at this point. Yellow-throated warblers are suddenly singing everywhere in the southeast corner of the state, and work their way north and west through the month. Louisiana waterthrushes are also very early, and can be found singing along small creeks and rivers by the middle of the month. The first swallows and purple martins show up in the south, and up in the northern part of the state blue-headed vireo numbers pick up and even red-winged blackbirds return. The eagerly awaited returning ruby-throated hummingbirds will hit the southwest and coast by the end of the month. Also along the coast and in the deep southeast the numbers of green and tricolored herons will begin to increase. By the end of March whip-poor-wills are starting to sing all over the northern half of the state, swallows are moving north, and a few warblers have made it above the fall line, mostly black-and-white and black-throated green warblers.
Duck migration continues to pull the winter residents away, and this is noticeable not only as the numbers start to drop at good winter waterfowl locations but as ducks show up in spots that are used most in migration. For example, the dam area at all of the large lakes, such as West Point, may have a few ducks all winter but during migration (March) there will be many more ducks on a daily basis and they will be rapidly changing from day to day. Lakes and deep ponds will have both dabblers (surface-feeding ducks like mallard and gadwall) and divers (like mergansers and buffleheads) and flooded fields and shallow ponds will have dabblers. Wintering ducks will leave the most southern spots first, but as March continues even the duck spots in the north will show a drop in numbers. The coast will see the departure of most of the northern gannets, and inland many of the landbird winter residents will begin to decrease, like golden-crowned kinglet and dark-eyed junco.
Even permanent residents get into the act, with breeding behavior and nest-building activity showing up in backyards and parks. Chickadees and titmice start singing across the state, and checking out nesting sites. American robins are building their nests everywhere above the fall line by the end of the month, and mourning doves are working on their spindly stick nests. Great horned owls have already hatched their young, and the young birds will be leaving the nest this month. Barred owls are starting to nest and screech-owls are thinking about it…
April is when migration really breaks loose! Across the state, to varying degrees, landbird and other migrants are pouring into the state from their wintering grounds to the south. Many species we don’t really think about as migrants are moving, like blue-winged teal. Though they winter in decent numbers in the south and along the coast, they can show up all over the state in April in any little pond or puddle. Other ducks continue to head north, including northern shovelers, ruddy ducks, and lesser scaup. Loons are just about gone by the end of the month. The non-breeding sparrows, as a group, are mostly gone by the end of April, including species like Savannah, swamp, and white-throated sparrow that were so common a month ago. Those sparrows that breed in the northern half of the state withdraw from wintering areas in the south. Just about all of the wintering bird species that nest much farther north in North America, including yellow-bellied sapsucker, winter wren, and brown creeper, are gone by the end of April. In the coastal plain the rest of the summer resident waterbirds—anhinga, white ibis, and cattle egret—arrive in large numbers. The always popular wood storks start to work on their huge nests at places like Harris Neck NWR, and about the same time ospreys are returning to build their stick nests on platforms near water all across the state. The first few chimney swifts also make it to Georgia, in the south at first and then in small numbers throughout the state by the middle of the month. Chuck-will’s-widow is another species that arrives in April, but you never have to guess when they have arrived due to their incessant calling!
April also brings lots of shorebird movement. Winter residents on the coast continue to depart for their breeding rounds to the north, and some species like dunlin are mostly gone by the end of the month. Other species are just arriving, like lesser yellowlegs and solitary and spotted sandpipers. These three species can often be seen along small ponds’ edges and in wet fields across the state, south of the mountains. Greater yellowlegs and pectoral sandpipers, which started arriving in late March, are really starting to increase across the state as well. Back on the coast black-bellied and piping plovers leave, to be replaced by migrating semipalmated plovers and summer resident Wilson’s plovers. Two shorebirds popular with birders, red knot and whimbrel, really increase in the middle of the month (through the middle of May) and can be seen on the beaches and mud flats respectively. Gulls started to thin out in late March, but now full-scale departure is underway, especially among the black-backed, herring, and ring-billed gulls. A few will remain all summer, but none will breed here except laughing gulls, which are really molting into their finest plumage this month. The summer terns begin to arrive, including Sandwich terns and migrant common terns.
As the trees finally leaf out, providing cover and food for hungry migrants, the bright colors and exuberant songs of the arriving landbirds work their way north throughout Georgia. There is about a two-week delay between birds arriving in the southernmost parts of the state and making it up to the northernmost parts. What starts as a trickle of migrants in early April becomes a flood by the end of the month. The first to arrive are the species that breed in the state, including great crested flycatcher, red-eyed vireo, wood thrush, prothonotary and hooded warblers, summer tanager, and indigo bunting. Ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive in the upper half of Georgia around mid-April. The number of migrants peaks in mid-April in the southernmost Georgia, about the 20th to the 26th around Atlanta, and the last days of April or early May in the north mountains. Every spring about 35 warbler species can be seen in Georgia, and most of them are here by April 20th across the state. Two species to look for inland are the Cape May and blackpoll warblers, because this is the only season they can be found inland (in fall they all head south down the coast). Some of the species that arrive later in April include magnolia, bay-breasted, and Canada warblers. Hot on the heels of all these small birds are the hawks, also migrating north. Three falcon species can be seen heading north along the coast (American kestrel, merlin, and peregrine falcon), along with many other species like both kites and both accipiters (sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks), and some of these species are seen inland as well. Another inland migrant in spring is the broad-winged hawk.
Migration continues throughout most of May, but the actual species change and the overall numbers drop drastically after the first 10 days. Just about all of the permanent residents in the state have already made their nests, laid eggs, and in many cases are feeding their young. By the end of the month many landbird species, especially in the south, will be working on a second brood. This can be seen in any backyard in Georgia, from Carolina wrens in garages to chickadees and titmice in boxes or tree cavities. And no mention of nesting would be complete without mentioning the eastern bluebird, a favorite across the state and a species that readily accepts houses and food offerings.
Although migration may be largely over by the end of the month, in the first week of May there are just as many birds passing through the northern half of the state, and many species are just arriving in the mountains. Birds are busy setting up their territories, choosing mates, and picking nest sites. A surprisingly large number of species don’t really appear anywhere in Georgia until May. These “just passing through” species include both gull-billed and least terns. Statewide, many species show up in smaller numbers in late April but most arrive in May. Among these are yellow-billed cuckoo and most flycatchers, including eastern wood-pewee and blue grosbeak. Least and willow flycatchers that either pass through completely or have only a few breeding pairs in north Georgia are also late migrants. Highly sought-after species like Connecticut warbler occur only in May, and a few other warblers, like yellow-breasted chat, are also among the latest arriving species. Possibly the latest migrant we have here is the white-rumped sandpiper, which only shows up (in small numbers) in mostly the last half of May, and even into early June.