For the Birds: March madness in terms of weather

March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. If only it were that simple.

This March, like many before it, seems to be toggling between lion and lamb daily. One day last week, I was at the beach photographing oystercatchers and other shorebirds. The next day, I watched out my window as several inches of snow fell. As with any snowfall, I enjoyed watching my feeder birds. This day’s visitors included bluebirds, Carolina wrens, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, juncos, woodpeckers, and other feeder birds.

Such is life in New England in March, and even early April, as outdoor enthusiasts are subjected to the whims of mother nature. Thankfully, there is birdwatching to be done regardless of the weather.

As I mentioned earlier, I spent a few hours last week at a Connecticut beach watching and photographing shorebirds along the edge of Long Island Sound. The stars of the show, of course, were the American oystercatchers. Oystercatchers have always been a favorite of mine, and seeing their carrot-like bills in March is an underrated, yet certain, sign of spring.

I knew there were oystercatchers at the beach long before I spotted them. Their high-pitched and loud piping notes greeted me as I crested the dune. I nearly missed out on actually seeing them as I had already turned around and headed back when I heard those piping notes again. I wheeled around and spotted two oystercatchers flying my way. Another beach visitor must have spooked them further down the coast and chased the birds my way. I stopped in my tracks and let the bird pick a safe spot to land. To my surprise and delight, they landed fairly close to me and started looking for food.

Oystercatchers are relatively large shorebirds with red and yellow eyes and substantial red-orange bills used for prying open shellfish such as oysters and clams. Their specialized diet keeps oystercatchers close to the shore and you are unlikely to see one inland.

I was also enjoying the large, mixed flock of sanderlings and least sandpipers. They are about the same size, but the sanderling’s nonbreeding plumage is much brighter.

The day at the shore got me thinking that the beach is an underutilized resource for finding signs of spring. You’re not likely to see bulbs poking out of the sand or robins scampering along a grassy area looking for worms, but you will see the movement of birds that herald spring.

The term spring migration can be a bit of a misnomer, and the seasonal movement of shorebirds is a prime example. Many shorebirds head north early, and some even make their southward, or “fall,” migration early in the summer.

Regardless of what mood March decides it wants to be in on a certain day, the bird migration will stay true to its historical schedule. Many shorebirds have already arrived. So have other birds such as red-winged blackbirds and American woodcock. I am expecting to see my first eastern phoebe any day now. Soon, they will all be passing through or setting up homes in our region. It’s an exciting time to be a birdwatcher.

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