Spring Birds: When Does Spring Migration Begin?

Bird watchers anticipate spring migration like kids anticipate Christmas. Looking forward to first-of-year species helps us make it through the bleak days of late winter. But when does spring migration actually start?

American woodcock. Photo by LavandarFields / Wikimedia.

American woodcock. Photo by LavandarFields / Wikimedia.

Since 1982, I’ve lived and watched birds in the lower Midwest—southern Ohio and southern Indiana. If you live in New England, the Great Plains, the Rockies, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, or the South, your spring birding experience will probably be quite different in terms of the species and/or timing of their return.

Sandhill cranes and some waterfowl start heading north in February, but in mild winters, they might not have made it very far south. They frequently overwinter in southern Indiana. American woodcocks migrate to the southeastern tier of states for the coldest months, but start turning up in their breeding territory by mid- to late February. A true sign of spring is hearing the nasal peent of a courting American woodcock, and, at least in the lower Midwest, that usually starts in late February.

Eastern Phoebe (Photo: John Benson/Creative Commons)

Eastern Phoebe (Photo: John Benson/Creative Commons)

By early March, we start looking for the first tree swallows to return, soon followed by the first purple martins. Another early audible sign of spring is the feebee of an eastern phoebe, which usually happens in early March. By late March, I’ll be keeping my eyes open for hermit thrushes as they pass through, and for Savannah sparrows to return. March is also a month to look for rusty blackbirds—at least where I live. They’re not here too long in the spring, eager to get back to the boreal forest and make more rusty blackbirds.

What about robins—when is their peak migration period? Except in the northernmost parts of their range—Canada and Alaska—American robins don’t migrate much. Rather, their behavior changes in the winter, forming huge flocks and sticking mostly to forests, where they can find dried and frozen fruit still hanging on trees. Sometimes winter flocks of robins show up in suburbs where there are holly, crabapple, and other trees with lingering fruit. “The first robin of spring” always happens on the vernal equinox (the first day of spring), because, at least in the continental U.S., most robins are present all year long.

The same is true for red-winged blackbirds. They, too, form large flocks when they are not breeding. A sign of spring is not their return, but seeing them individually and in pairs in breeding habitat—and at backyard bird feeders.

Male American Goldfinch

A male American goldfinch visits a backyard feeder. Photo kindly contributed by Todd Smith.

And when do goldfinches return? Like the robins and red-wingeds, they’ve been here all winter, too, but in their dull plumage. A sign of spring is seeing a few bright yellow feathers on an otherwise drab bird at your Nyjer feeder. It’s not an early sign of spring, though. American goldfinches don’t usually start to molt into their breeding finery until late March or early April.

Where I live, April brings the return of chipping sparrows, in their freshest, most colorful plumage. It’s always a thrill to spot an early chippy under my feeders.

Regarding warblers, yellow-rumpeds are possible to find most winters, but the earliest migrants to return are usually pine and yellow-throated, along with Louisiana waterthrush. The mad rush of warblers doesn’t happen until late April.

The dreary days of winter is the right time to brush up on your birding-by-ear skills, which contributes to the growing excitement and anticipation for getting out there and collecting your first returning migrants of the year.