We tend to think of spring migration as something that happens once the snow and ice are gone: everyone gets excited about seeing the first robin of spring.
But in fact, the migrants began showing up nearly two months ago, and many more will remain south of the border long after the robins have arrived.
Learning to recognize these early migrants can give you a great lift in midwinter. Some say you can forecast the onset of spring by their arrival date, but at the very least it provides a psychological boost to see a “spring” bird when winter is still very much with us.
Among the very first to arrive each year are the crows. Muskoka has both ravens and crows, but for the most part it’s only ravens who spend the winter here. Crows don’t migrate very far south – typically just across the Great Lakes, or even just into southern Ontario. This year, observers in Bala reported that the crows were back on February 19.
For crows, it’s the cold weather that keeps them away in winter – they’re not equipped to handle temperatures much lower than minus 20.
Most other birds time their arrival to get here as soon as there’s either habitat or food. The earliest arrivals in each species get a jump on the best territories, which often gives them an advantage in mating – in many species it’s the males who arrive first, staking out territories that will help them attract females.
But being the first arrivals brings a risk: time it too soon and you risk starving to death, or freezing in a late-season storm. This is the time of year when full feeders are really welcome, at least when it comes to seed-eating birds.
Surprisingly, most of the earliest migrants into Ontario are waterbirds. Various species of ducks and geese start to show up in southern Ontario as soon as the waterways begin to open up, in early March or even late February.
In Muskoka, they will touch down almost as soon as open water can be found. Cottagers on the Trent-Severn – or drivers who look down at the river at Washago as they cross the bridge on Highway 11 – are quite familiar with the sight of swans cruising sedately along the only patch of open water for many miles.
On land, grackles, starlings and red-winged blackbirds are usually the next arrivals, followed shortly by the long-anticipated robins. These birds have something in common: they’re all omnivores, who can usually count on finding something to eat long before the first seeds or spring insects start to appear. They will forage on whatever they can find – seeds and berries left over from last fall, the first spiders to emerge from hiding, and, of course, earthworms when the ground thaws. Red-winged blackbirds use a creative technique called “gaping,” forcing their closed bill into gaps under stones or sticks and then widening the gap by opening their beak, exposing any insects that are hiding inside the gap.
Song sparrows and bluebirds are among the next arrivals, along with woodcocks (which specialize in eating worms) and turkey vultures (which find an abundance of food as the snow retreats). The flocks of migrating smaller birds are closely followed by kestrels, merlins and other hawks that prey on them.
By mid-April, the doors are thrown wide open and species begin to pour into the region. Kingfishers, swallows, cormorants and ospreys all start to arrive.
Among the last are the tiny, hardy warblers, migrating thousands of kilometres at night and showing up when insect life is at its most abundant. Flycatchers, nighthawks and other insect specialists arrive in May, followed, almost at the very end, by the nectar-feeding hummingbirds, which have flown all the way up from southern Mexico or Panama.
All these migrants will show up tired and hungry, and highly appreciative of a great meal. To welcome them, have a diversity of feeders with sunflower seeds and corn in one, niger seed in another, and suet in yet another.
If you have hummingbird feeders, you can tell when to put them out by checking out this site, which meticulously maps their northward migration every year.
And always be sure to practice environmentally-sound pest control – one of the reasons we don’t use pesticides is to protect the birds and all the other species that can be harmed by toxic sprays.