Birds by the Billions: A Guide to Spring’s Avian Parade
For birders across the United States, it’s a rite of spring: heading out to woodlands and waterways to track down a favorite warbler, vireo, tanager or other bird, many of them migratory.,
We asked five birding enthusiasts to give us a rundown on where to go and what bird species to look for in five regions of the United States. All you need are binoculars and a good field guide.
The Midwest: Sandhill cranes, scarlet tanagers and more
For me, the sound that signals spring is the rattling, staccato calls of gangly sandhill cranes winging overhead.
For many years I volunteered for the International Crane Foundation’s Annual Midwest Crane Count, which placed me in a central Wisconsin marsh just outside Necedah National Wildlife Refuge before first light. There I sat shivering amid the stubborn patches of residual snow and brittle remains of the past year’s sedge grasses, listening intently for a bird call with the rhythmic texture of a spoon raking over a metal washboard.
Back in the mid-1930s, there were only about 25 breeding pairs of sandhill cranes left in Wisconsin. But today — thanks to protections like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act — the count tallies nearly 10,000 of these regal, crimson-crowned cranes across Wisconsin.
But there’s more than cranes in Necedah come spring, as dozens of Neotropical migratory songbirds have been recorded here from April through June. Indeed across the Midwest, spring brings an avian parade. The Great Lakes are a big draw, or rather a funnel, concentrating the columns of migratory birds headed farther north to Canada’s boreal forest. When the birds hit the big waters, many travel along shorelines, creating spectacular birding opportunities at points along Lake Superior and Lake Michigan from Minnesota through Michigan.
Even inland at Necedah, migration swells the avian ranks to nearly 200 species in May, according to eBird — a database of birders’ checklists. The spring birder may see trumpeter swans, secretive vesper sparrows, indigo buntings and blue-winged warblers. The very lucky birder might even glimpse a whooping crane — ghostly white and five feet tall, the tallest bird in North America, another crane in the midst of its own comeback from near extinction.
But it’s the sandhill crane count that was my cherished rite of spring. Sandhill cranes are one of the oldest known bird species; the unison calls of their duets have been rattling in spring for millions of years.
Of course, every birder has their own favorite. For Geoffrey Williamson, an eBird regional reviewer in Illinois and secretary of the Illinois Ornithological Society’s Records Committee, the birding vernal equinox begins in May with the fiery-faced Blackburnian warbler.
“The epitome of spring birding for me is the passage of wood-warblers,” Mr. Williamson said. “On really good days in May, you can see 25 species of them in Chicago.”
Mr. Williamson recommends Chicago’s Montrose Point in Lincoln Park, where, in recent years, the beach has hosted a pair of nesting piping plovers, a federally endangered species in the Great Lakes. Locals call them Monty and Rose.
In Indiana, Matt Igleski, a birding guide, said his spring showstopper is the flashy scarlet tanager. “It doesn’t matter how many scarlet tanagers you see in a day, during migration you are awe-struck every time,” Mr. Igleski said.
He recommends Indiana Dunes National Park and the adjacent state park — a habitat complex of oak savanna, wetlands, prairie and forest along Lake Michigan. Almost any bird species that migrates through the Midwest can be seen here, Mr. Igleski said, including cerulean warblers, rails, loons and whip-poor-wills. He will be leading bird tours in the area during the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival on the weekend of May 14.
In Minnesota, Dudley Edmondson, a photographer and author of “The Black & Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places,” cited the Cape May warbler — with its decurved bill and striped breast — as that special bird of spring. “By the second week of May, the warblers usually start arriving in good numbers,” Mr. Edmondson said. That is when birders flock to Duluth’s Park Point, which juts into Lake Superior.
“Get down there on a foggy morning in May,” Mr. Edmonson said. “Warblers and other songbirds will be dripping off the trees.”
Over in Michigan, Ryan Dziezic — a birder who teaches biology at Mid Michigan College — cites Tawas Point State Park along Lake Huron as the premier spring birding location. “It’s not uncommon to see over 100 species in a day at Tawas, from the American redstarts and black-throated blue warblers to the rarer golden-winged and Kirtland’s warblers,” he said.
As for his favorite spring bird, Mr. Dziezic refused to be pinned down: “All,” he said, “contribute to spring’s splendor.” GUSTAVE AXELSON
The Northeast: a festival of songbirds
I came to birding relatively late. My parents had a bird feeder on the Jersey Shore where I grew up, and I’d watch house finches and sparrows come and go. But I knew nothing about the migrations of songbirds until my late 20s when I interviewed Roger Tory Peterson, author of the iconic fields guides.
With the spring migration underway, this is the time to discover — or rediscover — the allure of birding. Some birds begin arriving in the Northeast in February and March, but May is the peak month, when songbirds travel (usually at night) from their wintering grounds in South and Central America to breeding grounds in the northern United States and Canada. Each day brings platoons of warblers, vireos, thrushes, tanagers and other migrants.
The first thing you learn when you pick up your binoculars and head out is that you are not “bird-watching,” but “birding.” Bird-watching implies a sedentary activity, while birding is proactive. The second thing is that birding can be a powerful form of meditation. As you scan the trees for the slightest movement and listen for the faintest peep, you are fully in the moment. Especially this year, with the stress of the pandemic, that can be its own reward.
Between 90 and 100 species of songbirds pass through the state of New York, where I live, in May, while a few stragglers, like the mourning warbler, visit into June, according to Andrew Farnsworth, a senior research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. A fifth to a quarter of the migrants are warblers. Their distinctive songs, diminutive size and colorful plumage make warblers the stars of the spring migration.
Migrating songbirds descend on woods and thickets, along ponds and next to streams, to feed on insects. The insects fuel their migrations — remarkable tests of endurance.
Some blackpoll warblers, for example, fly more than 12,000 miles round-trip during their spring and fall journeys, including 2,100 miles without stopping.
Ornithologists estimate that each spring, 2.5 billion to 3.5 billion songbirds are on the move across the United States. On the East Coast, birders look for migrants that follow the Atlantic Flyway. While the songbirds stop in city parks and backyards, there are some legendary spots where they congregate to feast.
First among them is Cape May in southern New Jersey whose diversity of habitat and ocean frontage make it a magnet for migratory birds. Other good locations are Central Park in New York City, a rectangle of green amid a sea of gray; Greenwich Audubon Center in Connecticut, a network of seven sanctuaries comprising 686 acres; and Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary, 480 acres of streams, ponds and woodlands south of Boston.
Some of my fondest birding memories are from Sandy Hook, a barrier spit that juts into the Atlantic in central New Jersey. Part of Gateway National Recreation Area, Sandy Hook has a maritime forest of American holly, cedar and black gum that lights up with flashes of yellow and orange as American redstarts and common yellowthroats — two warbler species — hop from branch to branch.
To properly enjoy the migration, you’ll need binoculars. I like a magnification of 8 x 42, which allows you to see details without a shaky image. A reliably crisp pair costs $100 or $200.
Even with binoculars, warblers can be hard to tell apart. Part of the problem is that they almost never stop moving. Rather, they flit in tree canopies in search of food, which means you are often viewing their bellies and breasts. But it’s sometimes a marking on the head — an eye-ring, say, or a cheek patch — that can clinch an identification. Patience and a good field guide are key.
Good subjects for practicing your identification skills are male yellow warblers, whose all-over yellow appearance and rust-colored necklace make it hard to mistake for something else. Ditto the male common yellowthroat, whose black eye mask is unlike that of any other warbler. And my personal favorite, and one of the few blue migrants: the black-throated blue warbler.
But no matter what your favorite is, the point is to embrace the whole ornithological parade — to let yourself marvel at the tiny, colorful, fleeting creatures in our midst. LISA W. FODERARO
The Southwest: tanagers, buntings and shorebirds
It’s hard to make a bad choice about where to go birding in the Southwest. But it will be a hard choice: There’s Texas, with 650 species, second only to California; Arizona, with its 550 visiting and resident species; and, sandwiched between them, New Mexico, similarly diverse.
April and May are especially busy on Texas’s Gulf Coast, where millions of northbound migrants stop off at the first tree-filled oasis on land: coastal High Island, about 80 miles from Houston. After high winds or a storm, they will descend in flocks — primary-colored tanagers and buntings, among others — known as a “fallout” after flying nonstop more than 500 miles.
In addition to its size, the state’s geographic diversity — from swamps to deserts, subtropical forests to alpine ones — accounts for its birding diversity, as demonstrated at Big Bend National Park in West Texas. Here, more than 450 species have been recorded in habitats ranging from desert floor to pine-oak-juniper woodlands in the Chisos Mountains.
“All the different habitats have a different suite of birds,” said Cliff Shackelford, the state ornithologist with Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.
Like the Chisos, the isolated mountains of southeastern Arizona are often called “sky islands,” emerging from oceans of desert.
“The sky-island effect provides varied habitats in a small space,” said Luke Safford, the community engagement manager with the Tucson Audubon Society in Tucson, Ariz.
In the Santa Catalina Mountains just north of Tucson, for example, woodpeckers include “the Gila woodpecker in the Sonoran Desert, ladder-backed woodpeckers in lower elevation habitats, then the Arizona woodpecker common in Madrean evergreen forests and hairy woodpeckers in ponderosa pine and Canadian boreal forests,” Mr. Safford said. “You can see them all in an hour going up into the mountains.”
Similar conditions can be found in the Chiricahua and Huachuca mountains. The Huachucas, about 85 miles southeast of Tucson, are known for supporting the largest number of breeding pairs of elegant trogon in the country and 15 varieties of hummingbirds.
After California, Texas and Arizona, New Mexico ranks as the fourth most biodiverse state, according to The Nature Conservancy. “There are several dominant ecological regions that converge in and around New Mexico,” said Kim Score, a wildlife biologist and birding guide based in Albuquerque. “Albuquerque is smack dab in the center of the state so it’s very easy to access a lot of these different habitats and life zones.”
Among them are: the Melrose Migrant Trap in the state’s eastern plains, an oasis for wood warblers in a small forest amid vast grasslands; the Rio Grande, which runs the length of the state, providing a green ribbon of water and trees; and Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, in San Antonio, N.M., where fields are flooded seasonally to mimic the formerly wild pattern of the Rio Grande. The refuge draws thousands of sandhill cranes in winter. After they leave in spring, through mid-May, flycatchers, vireos and warblers replace them, along with migrating shorebird species, including plovers, curlews and stilts.
“There’s always something to see,” Ms. Score said. ELAINE GLUSAC
The Pacific Northwest: sooty shearwaters and marbled murrelets
From the time Teresa Wicks was about 3, her parents called her Bird because she said she “wouldn’t shut up about birds.” Today Bird’s wife, Janelle Wicks, loves birds, too, but considers herself more a “birder” to Bird’s big B “Birder.” Either way, every spring, the two are thankful to live and work near one of the Pacific Northwest’s most celebrated birding destinations, Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, 292 square miles of wetlands, meadows and greasewood flats that plays host to a rowdy display of migratory birds.
“If you could only go one place, Malheur offers great bang for the buck, especially in the fall and spring,” said Bird Wicks, 41, the region’s field coordinator for Portland Audubon.
Adds her wife: “It’s like the Wimbledon of birding.”
Malheur was the place armed right-wing extremists seized in 2016, a move that particularly irked birders who protested the takeover in Portland, Eugene and Bend to remind everyone of the natural wonder at stake. The refuge and its surrounding wetlands are stopping-off points for as much as two-thirds of the waterfowl that each year join the billion or so birds that migrate on the Pacific Flyway, one of the four flyways that crosses the nation, this one from the tropics, over the western United States and north to the Arctic. More than a fifth of Oregon’s sandhill cranes come to Malheur to nest. It also holds the largest, westernmost populations of bobolinks, a twerpy little black-and-white songbird with a complex, mechanical call.
Then there are the confusions of vagrant warblers that get blown off course from the East by storm or brain glitch and happen upon this glorious truck stop shimmering in the desert. There are herds of long-billed curlews and congregations of white-faced ibises, in fact, 20 percent of the entire world’s population of them. Caldrons of red-tailed hawks, Swainson’s hawks and ferruginous hawks hunt on the updrafts. Those heritage stands of old homesteader trees might have a great horned owl tending to some owlets. Here, about 200 miles east of Boise, you’ll find 340 kinds of birds, the most in Oregon.
The Pacific Northwest and its mix of cold-water currents, high mountain peaks, expansive deserts and rich forests provide habitat and food for a wide range of birds that you might be able to see elsewhere, but maybe not all within such a close distance to each other.
At Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula, for instance, which abuts Willapa National Wildlife Refuge and Willapa Bay, you might catch sight of a pelagic species like a sooty shearwater, while hundreds of thousands of shorebirds like black-bellied plovers work the wet sand. If you’re extremely lucky, you might see an enigmatic marbled murrelet in an ancient Western red cedar, a seabird that only nests in mossy old-growth trees.
Meanwhile, red-winged blackbirds and purple martins flock to Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge on the Columbia River. Greater sage-grouse gather near Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. Grebes, a red-eyed, black-and-white relative to the flamingo, come to the Klamath Basin near Klamath Falls, Ore., to perform mating spectacles that include a splashy, synchronous “rush” of flightless running across the water.
“Spring is always so fun because we get all the migrants back,” said Jackie Ferrier, a project leader in Washington’s Willapa National Wildlife Refuge Complex. “I mean swallows, ospreys, woodpeckers, warblers, turkey vultures. People think, ah, turkey vultures, but I get excited to see them every year.”
Dianne Fuller can relate. After a long career in nursing, Ms. Fuller retired on Loomis Lake on Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula. Now 73, she’s been birding since she was 20.
Come spring, there’s no place she’d rather be than walking the early morning dunes or paddling the flat water in a kayak and pointing out the kingfishers to her miniature Australian shepherd, Beau, who stows aboard.
“Medicine is like detective work and it’s the same thing with birds,” Ms. Fuller said. “If you really watch them, study the length of the bill, the size of the feet, the shape of the wing, suddenly you realize this bird is filling some niche in this part of the world, and it’s just amazing.” TIM NEVILLE
The Southeast: thrushes, orioles, grosbeaks and buntings
I turned up on a cold — at least by South Florida’s standards — Sunday morning in late March just as the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary outside Naples, Fla., opened its gates. Noah Strycker, a writer and birder who set a world record in 2015 by spotting 6,042 bird species (more than half of the roughly 10,000 species in existence), told me that he spent a “magical morning” at the Corkscrew among yellow-throated warblers, painted buntings and other colorful birds. But on this day, my wife and I wondered if perhaps the birds were on holiday.
As we ambled across the sanctuary’s 2.5-mile-long boardwalk through pine flatwoods, marshes and into the largest old-growth bald cypress forest in North America, we heard plenty of birds overhead in the wild, soaring cypress trees. A chalkboard at the entrance indicated that recent sightings included scarlet tanagers and white-eyed vireos, not to mention Florida panthers and alligators. And so, when I heard what sounded like a very distinctive call, we stopped and recorded it on Song Sleuth, a birding app.
“Oh, look, it’s an American crow,” I said sarcastically. With all due respect to American crows and their supporters, this wasn’t what I’d hoped for. But the outing wasn’t a losswe enjoyed the company of great blue herons, great egrets and swallow-tailed kites circling overhead.
With a little patience, persistence and homework, spring can be a very rewarding time for birders around the Southeast, particularly in the Sunshine State, a prime spot to see Neotropical migrants as they travel from their winter havens in Central America and the Caribbean to more northerly breeding grounds.
Mr. Strycker, the author of Birding Without Borders, is based in Oregon, but said he loves spring birding in Florida. He said birders who don’t have the time to visit places like Dry Tortugas National Park, where exhausted migrants make landfall on several tiny islands, can find plenty of birds at hot spots like Merritt Island, an hour east of Orlando, Fla., where migrants join flocks of herons, egrets, storks, ibis, cormorants and spoonbills.
“I’ve been there when 25 or more warbler species, plus a supporting cast of cuckoos, vireos, thrushes, orioles, tanagers, grosbeaks and buntings … could be seen in a single day,” he wrote in an email.
Some of his other top picks in Florida are Everglades National Park, Jonathan Dickinson State Park outside Jupiter, Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Palm Beach County, and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, near Miami, which also has a historic lighthouse.
In Georgia, at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, you might spot migrants like blue-winged and Kentucky warblers along the four-mile Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive and adjacent trails. Georgia’s Jekyll Island, once the seasonal playground of the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, offers a refuge to the northern parula, the magnolia warbler and other birds. In South Carolina, not far from Greenville, check out lovely Caesar’s Head State Park, where you might see black-throated green warblers and blue-headed vireos along the Raven Cliff Falls trail.
After our American Crow letdown, we had better luck at the Circle B Bar Reserve, a former cattle ranch on a lake with an abundance of wildlife, about 45 minutes east of Tampa. We saw bald eagles, red-shouldered hawks, wood storks and, let’s be honest, a host of other birds I couldn’t identify, even with my Merlin Bird ID app.
But birding isn’t all about sightings and lists. Wherever you go, you’ll be outside, breathing fresh air and paying keen attention to something other than a screen. DAVE SEMINARA