The Hippo


May 28, 2020








On the wings of spring
What birds to look for as spring approaches

By Allie Ginwala

The early spring birds are heading to New Hampshire, the first of three waves that will return, said Pam Hunt, avian conservation biologist for New Hampshire Audubon. 

What you’ll see
The first wave comes in late March, the second in mid-April and the third in mid-May. 
One bird that used to be an early sign of spring for many is the robin. When spotted in the backyard, it used to signal that spring had arrived. But now, robins are sticking around the state all year long, which means another feathered friend must bring in the tidings of a new season. 
“The red-winged blackbird is a harbinger of spring,” said Becky Suomala, New Hampshire Audubon biologist. “They’re an early-returning bird with some of the other common blackbirds.” 
As of the first week of March, Suomala had already received a couple reports of red-winged blackbird sightings in southern New Hampshire.
Another early spring bird is the killdeer, a type of shorebird that isn’t actually found on the shore. 
“It nests in fields and gravelly areas,” Suomala said. “Usually you need a little bit of non-snow-covered ground to see them.” 
In years past, by early March Suomala would have already heard reports of killdeer, but with the heavy snow this winter it might take a bit longer. 
Another woods-dwelling shore bird found early in the season is the American woodcock, which will make an appearance once the habitat it’s looking for is open. 
“They return as soon as there is a little open ground on wet edges of fields,” she said. 
One unique thing about early spring birding is waterfowl migration. 
“Spring waterfowl migration is a pretty freaky thing,” Hunt said. “If you're not out looking you’re not going to see them. … Make an effort to [be] where the waterfowl are going to be, like open areas on the river… where they’re going to first show up.”
Many ducks and geese will start to return as the ice thaws. 
“As rivers and lakes start to open up, the early-returning waterfowl start to concentrate,” Suomala said. 
They’re more concentrated earlier in the season because the small lakes and ponds are still frozen, so the place to be is along the edges of the Merrimack River. Be on the lookout for wood ducks and hooded mergansers, or “hoodies” as Suomala called them, that start to appear around mid-March. 
What you’ll hear
One thing to look forward to as April gets closer is birdsong. When most people think of spring bird songs, they’re thinking of birds returning from the south, Suomala said. 
“The birdsong is more a sign of birds are back,” she said. “It’s a territorial song and also the males letting the females know, ‘Here I am.’” 
Once April rolls around, listen for pine warblers and Eastern phoebes to sing first. Eastern phoebes usually nest on human structures, making it easy to hear their songs, while pine warblers keep to the pine trees. 
“The cardinal, chickadee and tufted titmouse are starting to sing as the days are getting longer,” Suomala said. “They’re year-round so their singing is not a song that they’re back. That’s a sign that days are getting longer and toward breeding time.”
How to find them
For birdwatchers, finding birds early in the season takes a little more effort. You can’t simply step out the front door or look in the backyard; you have to seek them out. 
“If the water is open, insects start hatching so that’s where you'll really see these early migrants,” Hunt said. 
She suggested checking out tributaries in Nashua and Horseshoe Pond in Concord, which is an accessible and open space.
Will they still come?
While the particularly snowy winter could impact the timing of returning birds, it’s not likely to have any repercussions, Suomala said. Killdeer and woodcock are looking for open ground, so they may be affected by lingering snow, but “they're driven by time of year and not condition,” she said. 
What could have an effect is if the weather were to be clear and open with a sudden stretch of really bad weather in April, she said.
“If they get here and it’s still icebound they might not be that happy,” Hunt said. “They might either not make it or backtrack or it ends up concentrating in these microclimates,” such as places of open water along the Merrimack River. 
“The ones that arrive early are taking a risk. … You could have another snowstorm in April, but those that come early are pretty tough,” she said. “If it’s a little bit of a cold snap … they could weather it out for a couple of days.” 
As seen in the March 19, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

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