For the Birds: Patience is key to spring migration

Photo by Chris Bosak An Eastern Phoebe perches on a branch in Selleck's Woods in Darien, Conn., in late March 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak A red-winged blackbird sings from the top of a tree at Happy Landings in Brookfield, Conn., spring 2017.

Late March and early April can be a tough time for birdwatchers as we are in the slow build up to spring migration.

The spring migration actually starts sometime in February when the first male red-winged blackbirds arrive. It’s a nice sight (and sound) when they return to our swamps, but it’s pretty much just a tease as we know winter will continue, and it will be several weeks until other birds start to show up.

American woodcocks and eastern phoebes return to New England around the middle of March. A few weeks later, ospreys arrive. The build up can be excruciatingly

slow for the eager birdwatcher who has had enough of winter and is ready for spring migration to really take off. 

In the next couple of weeks, the early warblers will arrive in our woods and, if we’re lucky, at our feeders. Pine warblers and palm warblers are typically the earliest to arrive, usually the first or second week of April. I have seen pine warblers at my suet holders plenty of times. I have never seen a palm warbler at my feeders, but they do nose around the yard looking for food. Yellow-rumped warblers are the other warbler that will visit feeders, but they arrive a little later than the pines and palms. 

It is not until the last week of April that the spring migration takes off and hits full swing. That’s when dozens of warbler, flycatcher and vireo species fill our woods, along with colorful songbirds such as scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks and Baltimore orioles.

But that is still ahead of us. For now, we can start looking for phoebes, American woodcocks and ospreys, as well as a variety of ducks now that the waters are opening up. It’s also a good time to look for wild turkeys in the spring mating season. The other day, I watched a tom keeping about five other turkeys in line and displaying his impressive feathers.

It’s also a good time to find shorebirds such as killdeer and piping plovers in New England. Killdeer, of course, may be found far from any shore in open areas such as parking lots and cemeteries. Piping plovers are strictly shoreline nesters. 

It’s also worth noting that woodcocks are considered shorebirds but live in the woods. I’ve heard the woodcock alternately called timberdoodle before, but I recently learned that they are also nicknamed bogsucker, hokumpoke, mudsnipe and Labrador twister. That’s a lot of colorful nicknames for one bird.

I have been trying for years to get a photo of an American woodcock, but it is a species that eludes me at every attempt. I have seen and heard their aerial displays at dusk several times, but by then the light is too far gone to get any photographs. I have tramped through the woods during the day in the middle and end of March to no avail. I have also had plenty of photos emailed to me, and I have seen several on Facebook, of woodcocks hanging out in people’s yards. I look every March but have never seen one in my yard.

One of these years. 

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