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Spring Migration: Who’s staying, who’s going?

Lisa M Ca, Macomb, MI

By Tom Dennis

“Beware the Ides of March” is fast upon us and as sure as the soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar of his pending demise; local bird populations are on migration high-alert.  We’re already seeing the return of short-distance travelers such as American Robins, Common Grackles (which Lisa Ca of Macomb thinks “should be called Extraordinary Grackles”) and Red-winged Blackbirds (males only for now), along with flocks of Tundra Swans, Sandhill Cranes and more heading to their summer breeding grounds so, “what’s coming next?” is the obvious question.  We’ll look at the obvious, as well as the not so obvious such as, who’s leaving, who’s staying but gets a new spring outfit and what this means to you, me, and our bird friends. Don’t be a Julius Caesar; heed the warning lest you miss out on this fabulous springtime event!

The next migratory wave will include Red-winged Blackbird females that typically follow the males after a few weeks.  There is an old birder saying that once the female Red-winged Blackbirds arrive, there will be no more ice on ponds or ditches and being an old birder, I find this to be true.  We will also be seeing the sparrow species changing as they move out of, through and into the Blue Water Area. Sparrows that are leaving include Fox Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco while those passing through in March and April include White-throated and White-crowned Sparrow.  Sparrows moving back for the summer will arrive in late-April and early-May and include Chipping, Lincoln’s, Savannah, Vesper, and Field Sparrow.

Early raptor migration has already started with numbers of Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawks, and Sharp-shinned Hawks passing through.  April is the peak month for raptors and we will see even higher numbers of these birds with big numbers of the crow-sized Broad-winged Hawk and smaller number of several more species that will include Eagles, Osprey, and three members of the falcon family; Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, and American Kestrel.  We see an interesting phenomenon termed “reverse migration” in our area and it involves mainly raptors but also Blue Jays. The raptors, in particular, depend on rising warm air currents to soar to high altitude and then coast long distances to conserve energy. They need to avoid large bodies of water like Lake Huron as it lacks these warm thermals.  While migrating north large numbers enter Michigan’s thumb area and finding themselves surrounded by big water, they reverse direction south following the shoreline until they can cross the at the southern tip of the lake between Port Huron and Sarnia.

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The neo-tropic migration is the event that gets birders most excited.  That’s when birds that winter in Central and South America make their way back north to summer breeding grounds.  These birds start showing up in late April through mid-May and include Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Baltimore Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers and a host of little gems known as warblers.  These creatures know instinctively when, where, and how to find their way “home”. They almost always return to where they were born so you may be right if you think you see the same bird returning to your yard each year, often on the same day each year!  Our hummingbirds and orioles return without fail on May 5th year after year.  Oh, the bird with the new outfit; it’s the American Goldfinch.  They’ve been here all winter but in camouflage. You will soon see the males dressed in bright yellow with a black cap, singing a spring song for their ladies!

So, this is spring cleaning time.  Keep your feeders full and clean, hummingbird feeders should be out by mid-April.  Also, let the insects live, the birds need them for high-protein nutrition. Habitat is also a critical requirement and many birds succumb to habitat loss.  You can easily make your property a bird-friendly environment and you too will experience the health benefits and joy of the creation!  

You can learn more about birds and nature by attending Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Point, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot.  Our next meeting will be held on, Monday, April 6, starting at 6:45 PM. You are also encouraged to visit the Blue Water Audubon Society Facebook page for local bird sightings, discussions, and events; be sure to “friend” us!

Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, gardener and naturalist.  

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