Late April and early May is my absolute favourite time of year to get out birding. It is an exciting time of year as spring migration starts to pick up, and we birders see an incredible number of first of year species. Each time I venture out, I know there is the possibility to see a bird that I have not seen since last fall. This is what motivates me, and can often keep me out in the field for hours at a time. This past week did not disappoint, as I observed many first of year species, and of course many of the ones I had previously observed this year.
The week started out with my first warbler of the year. It came as no surprise it was a Yellow-rumped. These birds have the shortest migration distance to reach our area of any warbler and are always the first to return each spring. Other warblers observed this past week included: Pine, Yellow, and Palm. All in all it was a pretty good week for warblers given it is still the end of April. Expect the number and variety of warblers to increase substantially over the coming weeks. The lack of leaf cover currently on the trees makes finding and photographing these small, fast moving birds less of challenge.
Other than Tree Swallows, I had not observed any other swallows to date until this week. I am happy to report that Northern Rough-winged, Bank, and Barn Swallows have all returned to the Forest City. It is especially great to see Bank and Barn Swallows as these birds are currently listed as at risk in Ontario. The quick aerial maneuvers of any swallow are a treat to watch as they capture insects on the fly.
Other first of year species for me this week were the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Blue-headed Vireo. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers can be a tricky bird to locate, but fortunately their nasally zee call will help give away their location. If you hear their call, look up as these birds typically forage on insects high overhead. Blue-headed Vireos are the first of the vireos to return each year and can be found in the same deciduous habitats as warblers and gnatcatchers.
A few first of year shorebirds were also observed this past week with the Spotted Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs added to my list. While many shorebirds tend to be found along the beaches of the Great Lakes during migration, others are equally at home along small ponds and rivers. Pay close attention to muddy or sandy shorelines along any body of water if you wish to find these birds.
I am still waiting to see my first Baltimore Oriole and Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the year. I have heard several reports of them in our immediate area, but they have eluded me so far. If you haven’t already, make sure both your oriole and hummingbird feeders are out, and the nectar is fresh. These birds will show up in good numbers any day now. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, another spring favourite of birders and non-birders alike, have been reported in our area, but I have not laid eyes on one yet. Grosbeaks are particularly fond of both black oil sunflower and safflower seed, so keep your feeders full. Like orioles and hummingbirds, grosbeak numbers will increase any day now.
Saturday looks like a beautiful day to get out birding and there are many great places within the city to bird. Remember a few things before you head out. Most of these returning birds consume insects, so look for them where food is abundant. I have the greatest success locating these birds in protected areas out of the wind, where there is the highest concentration of insects. Birds are most active first thing in the morning, making this the best time to head out.
Birds typically migrate at night, with many of these migrants actively feeding at first light to replenish spent energy after their long journey. With this in mind, carefully plan your route before heading out. If you have the option to, start at the east end of the trail and walk west. This will put the sun at your back, illuminating the birds and avoiding silhouettes. This makes observation and identification much easier, and provides the best light for photographs.
We are in for some great birding action over the coming weeks. If you get the opportunity, head to your favourite park, ESA, or other natural area, and take in the beautiful sights and sounds of spring migration.