Spring Bird Migration for Beginning Birders

birds_Spot-breasted Oriole (Icterus pectoralis)
Spot-breasted Oriole (Icterus pectoralis)- http://www.birdphotos.com

It is just about time for spring birding activities to begin in earnest. It can be confusing for new birders to understand the when and why of birdwatching.

What we are watching is bird migration. That is why there is frenzied bird watching at certain times of the year. The spring migration of birds takes place over a shorter span of time than fall migration.

In spring, the birds are anxious to get to their breeding grounds, pick a mate or find their previous mate, mate, and raise a brood of young.

Unless you live in the the far, far, north, birds will pass through your area to their breeding areas. Some of these areas are further north, some are in your backyard.

I have spent the last few weeks extensively updating my articles on bird migration, migration flyways routes, and hummingbird migration dates. I wrote this new article to bring some clarity to spring birding.

birds_Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris)
Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris). Photo: public domain, fws.gov.

The Spring Migration Calendar

In North America, spring migration is spread over three months from February through mid- April.

January – The birds that are the furthest away from their north (Arctic) breeding grounds start northward migration earliest. In some cases the birds in the far south of South America move north during early January.  We won’t see those bird in North America until later, maybe in March.

February – Shorebirds move north from the coasts in North America.

March through early April – spring migration is in swing. The birds that flew over the oceans in fall’s southward migration, often travel northward over the North American continent.

April – this the time of courting and nesting begins. Once nesting season begins, birders leave the birds to raise their young in peace. This a good time to switch to watching the birds that come to your feeders.

Mid-April through mid-May – the prime time for spring bird migration in most of North America. this time is later in the northern areas and earlier in the southern areas. The birds are sticking (mostly) to the major bird flyways.

birds_American Redstart, male
American Redstart, male. Photo courtesy of Dan Pancamo Photography http://photos.pancamo.com found on Wikimedia – 3 May 2015

Bird Feeding for Spring Migrants

What birds stopover at your feeders? Having a wide variety of different foods and plenty of water for birds is an excellent strategy for draw a wide variety of birds to your backyard.

Passerines and songbirds migrate during the night. Hawks and raptors (such as owls) migrate during the day. Check your feeders in the very early morning when the songbird migrants are looking for something good to eat.

Scarlet Tanager bird, male. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren (Wikimedia Commons, 3 May 2015)

How to Spot the Migrants

To pick out the spring migrants, you need to know which birds species live in your neighborhood all year around. Which birds do you see once, and then not again? There probably neotropical migrants who are just passing through your area. Neotropical migrants are birds that spend part of the year in the tropics at or near the equator. These birds fly north to breed. In a field guide map you’ll see an indication they winter in Central and South America or Africa.

Who are the birds that are in your area just for the winter? Which birds come to your winter feeders? Do these birds disappear as the day lengthens, and the weather warms? These are the birds, like Juncos, which nest in the far north and winter south in the lower 48 U.S. states.


Piping plover (Charadrius melodus) walking on the beach
Piping plover (Charadrius melodus)
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public domain.

Where to Find the Spring Migrants?

Songbirds fly by night (pun intended). They rest during the day. And eat. And sleep.

To see the birds during the day, go where the birds are. Where will they rest – in trees and shrubs. Where will they eat – were insects, buds, and they find any fruit. This means forests, woods, backyard feeders, and wetlands.

Ordinarily, the birds that flew southward over land return northward over land in the spring. Birds that used the overland flyways will use a similar overland route. Birds that flew along the west and east coastlines and then over the oceans have been tracked to use the overland flyway migration routes on their way northward in spring.

Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia pusilla). Photo courtesy Jake Dingel/Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia pusilla). Photo courtesy Jake Dingel/Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Finding a Birding Group

Check out your local or regional Audubon group for birding trips. As far as I know anyone can go on the field trips. You don’t have to be a member.
Local environmental centers, national wildlife refuges, and national parks, also have birding activities.

Keeping a Life List and Journal

Many birders, myself included, keep a special book to record their sightings. I keep track of when I first spotted a particular species.

I can look in my Birder’s Journal and see that I first saw a Common Yellowthroat on May 06, 2006 in Fort Washington State Park. I also can see all the birds I have yet to see.

Of course, you can use your nature journal to track your sightings.

To keep these records, you probably need to keep a nature journal or even a birder’s log book. Here an Amazon link to David Sibley’s Life LIst and Journal. (affiliate link)

Great Horned Owl (courtesy USFWS/Dave Menke)
Great Horned Owl (courtesy USFWS/Dave Menke)

Key Spots along the Route for Northbound Spring Migration

We don’t know birds northbound routes as well as we do the fall southbound migration. But here a few key places for spring migration. The links connect to internet websites.

Where to see Bird Migration (National Wildlife Refuges)

Delaware Bay in a great spring migration watching spot for the Delaware Valley. See Delaware State Parks and  Delaware Shorebird Project  (Delaware.gov)

Great Lakes area – Magee Marsh Wildlife Area (east of Toledo)

Central Park, New York City, New York

Point Reyes National Seashore, California


Citizen Science Projects on Spring Bird Migration

The following citizen science projects are focused on discovering the spring migration northbound routes of migrating birds. These links are to internet websites.

On SciStater.org I found 17 citizen science projects focusing on bird migration. Here are two projects.

International Shorebird Survey 

Purple Martin Scout Arrival Survey

Journey North

More Birding Information

Birding by Ear: Learning Birds Calls and Songs 

The Dawn Chorus 

I hope you found this article useful. If you have a question or comment, let me know in the comments below.




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