As winter is finally drawing to a close, many birders turn their thoughts to the return of our migrating birds. My husband and I have enjoyed feeding and watching the hardy species that stay here all year; we have been excited when a few that usually migrate have overwintered — such as the single junco that came all this winter to the backyard feeder and the mourning dove that has reappeared there for the last seven winters. But as temperatures warm up and snow begins to melt, our thoughts turn instead to other birds — to returning species and to those birds which begin their nesting season early. Even that returning crow is a welcome sight and sound after a long winter.
First on the list are usually the horned larks, which begin to appear as early as January or February. We catch sight of them flying up along highways as vehicles approach. These small birds are difficult to photograph because they usually scare as you get near. I always wonder why they return quite that early; they are ground nesters, and there are usually no bare spots available that soon.
Another early arrival, often beginning in March, is the Canada goose. A very few occasionally stay over winter, if they can find open water below a dam, but most migrate at least some distance south. Some geese may only travel as far south as Wisconsin or Michigan before finding enough open water to overwinter. These ones may begin to arrive back in Manitoba before the lakes or rivers begin to open up. We hear their plaintive honking and watch as they land on ice and search for open water. Ducks and occasionally gulls are other water species that sometimes return too early. They, also, may find many of their favourite spots still covered by ice.
More from the Manitoba Co-operator website: This winter is NOT ‘for the birds’
Other early arrivals are robins, often by the end of March, despite lingering banks of snow and a scarcity of worms and insects. We welcome their cheerful chirping, a sign of spring to those who are tired of winter! Bluebirds and some types of sparrows may also arrive early, sometimes coming too soon. Sudden cold spells or blizzards can mean death for these birds. In 2011 my husband discovered dead eastern bluebirds in one of his houses following a blizzard, while last year’s bluebirds were very late returning, and fewer in number. It was presumed that storms in the central U.S. had delayed or killed some of them.
Besides watching for returning migrants in spring, birders can watch and listen for birds that are beginning to nest. A number of species actually start building nests while spring still seems a long way off. Ravens are one such species. A Winnipeg birder remarked on the Internet that a raven was seen carrying nesting material the third week of February!
Owls also begin nesting early in the season. From February to April is when we hear them most often, a sign that these birds are beginning to pair up. Some types of owls are migratory. Burrowing owls, short-eared owls and some northern saw-whet owls spend their winters farther south. But by March these have usually returned to join other types that stay all year.
For birders who are interested in owls, late March and early April is when the annual Manitoba Nocturnal Owl Survey is held. My husband and I have helped with this for several years and find it an interesting way to spend a late-winter/early-spring evening. Beginning about 9 p.m., we drive a pre-set 10-mile route through the hills south of MacGregor, stopping every mile (each 1.6 km) to listen for owls. Most years we hear a couple of great-horned owls and several northern saw-whet owls, but last year we heard no saw-whets; apparently with the long winter/late spring they were slow returning from the south, all across the province.
If you would like to participate in the owl survey, contact Dr. James Duncan at [email protected] or at 204-945-7465. For more information, or to listen to the owl calls, check out the website at http://www.naturenorth.com/summer/creature/owl/owl_new/owl2005.html.
Whatever birds interest you, as winter draws to a close it’s time to turn your attention to the new arrivals. But don’t forget, the winter birds will still be visiting your feeders for a while yet.