Winter is over. The birds are getting frisky. Owls are among the first to begin mating rituals.
Maine Audubon conducts its breeding owl surveys in March because that’s when the owls begin, ahem, “coupling.” Great horned and barred owls have already begun establishing territories and there’s a lot of hootin’ and hollerin’ in the woods right now, mostly hootin’. Many saw-whet owls leave the state in late autumn but return long before the resumption of sensible
Woodpeckers are also getting amorous this time of year. Indeed, just about all the non-migrants are starting to pair up. The effect on waterfowl is noticeable. Male and female common mergansers ignore each other for most of the early winter, but you’ll start to notice the drakes and hens swimming together in late winter. Even sea ducks that have no intention of breeding in Maine start to pair up before leaving for Hudson Bay.
The first real wave of migrants arrives in March. The red-winged blackbirds and common
grackles return to the marshes even before the wetlands have melted. Until the spring thaw,
blackbirds are most likely to flock to a bird feeder, grateful for any morsel they can find, even if it is not their preferred food. I can relate. I don’t like turnips, but I prefer them to starvation.
Around April 1, you will become aware that the American robins and song sparrows have
begun to sing. You will not be aware that winter wrens and hermit thrushes are beginning to
move back into the woods. The wrens and thrushes barely left New England last fall, spending
the winter from New York to the Carolinas. They don’t usually start singing until things warm
up a little, but they’re out there all right. Other April arrivers include tree swallows, eastern
phoebes, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Most of the hawks return in April, too.
Not for nothing am I known as the Nostradamus of the birding world. Test me. I predict that
over the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race Weekend, you will see the year’s first warblers. They will be yellow-rumped, palm, and pine warblers. The pine warblers will sing; the others probably won’t. If race day weather is bad, it will happen on the first warm, quiet day following the race.
These three species are the first migrants to return because they never went far in the first
place. Yellow-rumped warblers winter along the Middle Atlantic coast, foraging on bayberries.
Pine warblers retreat to the southern yellow pines of Dixie. Although palm warblers prefer to
hide in Maine bogs while breeding, they’re conspicuous suburbanites in southern Florida during the winter.
The next wave of warblers will arrive about May 1. Most of these also wintered in the United
States. I often find black-and-white warblers and ovenbirds in the Florida Everglades when
visiting there in the winter. Without the need to cross the Caribbean, they routinely beat the
other warblers home.
By Mother’s Day weekend, half of the neo-tropical warblers will have returned. Hummingbirds
will arrive that weekend.
The third weekend of May begins the influx of songbirds arriving from Central and South
America. Blackpolls fly a great deal of that distance over open ocean. When they reach our
coastline, they are tired and hungry. A brief feeding frenzy transpires before they melt into our
spruce forests and mountains. Many Tennessee and chestnut-sided warblers winter in Costa
Rica, and I don’t expect to see them until late May.
The Bicknell’s thrush and the Nelson’s sparrow arrive latest, both for good reason. Winter
lingers on mountaintops, and the Bicknell’s thrush is an alpine bird. All the early bird gets is a
wormsicle. Nelson’s sparrows nest in salt marshes. Building a nest prior to the spring high tide
courts disaster. They are in no rush to return.
Awareness of this natural rhythm warms my heart. I honestly feel the joy of spring returning
each time I hear an old friend sing a familiar tune for the first time in the new year. I know when to expect them; I worry when they are late. And, sometimes, they are late. The early birds tend to be very punctual, but the birds of May can have it rough because there is more variability in the weather pattern during the fifth month. It would be easy to conclude that bad weather in Maine is a reason for birds returning late. Actually, it’s the weather south of us that can delay arrival. Everyone likes a tailwind, especially migrant birds. When a major weather pattern in the southern or central part of the country disrupts the prevailing wind, it bottles up the birds. They can spend days and even weeks waiting for conditions to turn favorable down there, even when it’s sunny and warm up here.
But we’ll worry about that later. For now, it is enough to know that winter is over. Sort of.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Reach Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.