Migration Spotlight: Early Spring Migrants

Spring begins around March 20! But spring migration has been going on for more than a month already and will continue for another two months, depending upon where you live. The experience of spring migration varies a lot across this continent. For those in the South, it means the abundant waterfowl and other more northerly breeders are departing. For those who live in the central tier of states, it means our winter visitors will be heading out while species that winter in the South and breed in the North will be passing through. For those who live in the northern states and Canada, the “snow birds” will be returning. The first birds to get the urge for leaving are, in most cases, those who haven’t traveled too far, including those that spend the winter on this continent, so that’s the focus of this article. Here’s a spotlight on a few early migrants to whet your whistle and prepare you for what’s to come.

Early Migrant #1: Common Goldeneye

This one winters across most of the Lower 48, but breeds in Canada and Alaska. It is heading north by mid-March, so look for it on lakes and rivers around that time. Here’s a link to a video showing the species’ courtship behavior. Watch for it—odds are good that it’s happening right now on rivers and lakes near you!
More about this bird »

Early Migrant #2: American Wigeon

Another early migrant is this duck, which winters across the southern tier of states, but also along the Pacific Coast west of the Cascades, and along the Atlantic Coast as far north as Cape Cod. It nests in Alaska, across Canada, in the Northern Plains states, and in the northern Rockies. This photo is of a female, which lacks the male’s most eye-catching field mark. The male American wigeon’s “bald pate” is distinctive. The female’s streaky, round head and the dark area around her dark eye help with her ID.
More about this bird »

Early Migrant #3: Sandhill Crane

Those who don’t pay much attention to birds might think this is a great blue heron, which is a year-round resident throughout most of its range. This bird, for the most part, is a highly migratory species. Its migration is a noisy spectacle of nature across the eastern, central, and Pacific flyways.

Sandhill cranes fly with their neck outstretched; great blue herons usually fly with their neck pulled back into an S shape. Cranes usually migrate in large groups; herons are typically seen flying solo. Sandhill cranes winter in Florida and southeastern Georgia (where they are also permanent residents), much of Texas, and a few spots in California. They breeds across Canada, Alaska, the northern tier of states, and south as far as central Pennsylvania and the Great Salt Lake area, and northeastern California.
More about this bird »

Early Migrant #4: Yellow-rumped Warbler

This warbler winters across much of the Southeast and central states and in some areas of California. It might even have visited your sunflower or suet feeder in the past few months, but it was a pale version of itself; the bird has now molted into its brilliant breeding plumage. It nests across Alaska, Canada, and New England, in the higher elevations of the Appalachians, and in the Rockies and Sierras. The yellow-rumped warbler is often the first warbler to return to its breeding grounds in the spring. Identification hint: Notice the buttery butt!
More about this bird »

Early Migrant #5: Ruby-crowned Kinglet

This pretty little bird nests in the boreal forests of the North, as well as in some mountainous areas of the West, and winters across the Mid-Atlantic and South, as well as along the Pacific coast. In much of the central U.S., males are passing through at this moment, while the females are a bit slower to return to their breeding areas. Males and females are identical, except that males have a scarlet patch on the crown, which is often concealed. It is one of North America’s smallest songbirds.
More about this bird »

Early Migrant #6: Golden-crowned Kinglet

Here’s another tiny songbird that winters across most of the U.S. and nests across southern Canada, as well as in parts of the West, New England, and the Appalachians. It heads north slightly earlier than its cousin from the previous question. Males have yellow and orange in their head patch, while the females’ is only yellow. The bold facial pattern distinguishes this species from the ruby-crowned kinglet. Although golden-crowned kinglets typically head south for the winter, they have been known to withstand nighttime temperatures of -40 degrees Fahrenheit!
More about this bird »

Early Migrant #7: Rough-legged Hawk

This gorgeous raptor nests from Hudson Bay north to the Arctic, but can be seen soaring above open areas across most of the U.S. in winter. It is eager to get to its breeding turf, so this is a species on the move right now. Rough-legged hawks can be dark or light, but both color morphs have a wide, dark band behind the white base of the tail.
More about this bird »

Early Migrant #8: Tree Swallow

This bird nests across much of the U.S.—except the far South, where it winters. If you live north of southern Arkansas, this bird may be “home” to nest by March. Are your nest boxes ready? This species might be the most reliable harbinger of spring for most North Americans. Although they are primarily insectivores, tree swallows can survive on fruits and other vegetation during late wintery weather.
More about this bird »

What species do you look for during early migration in your area? Use the comments feature below and let us know!

Leave a Comment

Subscribe & Save!

ONE YEAR (6 ISSUES) of Bird Watcher's Digest magazine
GET FREE AND INSTANT ACCESS to our digital edition
SAVE 33% off newsstand prices
PAY ONE LOW PRICE of $19.99!
Scroll Up