No matter how satisfying winter birding has been, I am always excited as March approaches, ready to welcome back the species that I have not seen since the fall. Many other migrants will be putting in their appearance later, but there is something special about the first spring arrivals each year.
Over the years, I have come to anticipate the arrival in Eliza Howell Park of the same ten species each year in March. One or two of these ten might not show till the beginning April on a rare occasion, but the chances are excellent that I will see these ten in the park in March. It is easier to predict their migration patterns than to predict March weather!
These species have two characteristics in common.
- They spend the winters within the United States, only a relatively short distance south; they are not among the neotropical migrants that winter in Central or South America.
- Southeastern Michigan is part of their breeding territory; they are returning here for the summer, not just migrating through to destinations further north, as do many of the later spring migrants.
- Note: All the photos included here were taken by Margaret Weber.
The Red-winged Blackbird is often the first to arrive. The males arrive before the females, who might not make it till April. When the first males arrive, their red shoulder patches may still be somewhat winter dull. As the month advances, this changes noticeably and, by the end of March, they are ready to welcome the females with bright patches. Red-winged Blackbirds nest in Eliza Howell Park every year.
The Common Grackle and the Brown-headed Cowbird (neither is pictured here) also arrive in March unfailingly. Grackles nest in the park. Brown-headed Cowbirds, as brood parasites, do not build their own nests at all. They are, however, very successful in reproducing in Eliza Howell, being specialists in adding an egg to nests of other species.
The Killdeer is also a reliable March arrival, but never in great numbers. I count finding its nest, “hidden out in the open” on the ground, as one of my most exciting nest-searching experiences.
The Rouge River flows south through Eliza Howell and two miles or so downriver from Eliza Howell, in Rouge Park, there is a Great Blue Heron rookery. This might be where the herons that forage in EH nest, though I do not know that for sure. I do know that I can expect their arrival along the river or in the spring-flooded bottomland in March.
Hinckley, Ohio, celebrates the annual arrival of the Turkey Vulture (not pictured) every year in the middle of March. It is usually about then that I see the first vultures of the year in EH. They soar overhead, surveying the terrain singly or in small numbers. They will appear repeatedly over the next few months, but I know not where they nest.
Ten years ago the Eastern Bluebird would not have been on this list. They are slowly becoming more regular summer residents of Eliza Howell Park. While Eastern Bluebirds are sometimes seen at other locations in southern Michigan in the winter, I usually do not see them here until March.
Of the birds on this list, the Wood Duck may be the most thrilling. It arrives regularly on the river in March, the only duck besides the Mallard that is common here. The male in the spring is so striking, especially in the sunlight, that it always produces a “wow” response. Wood ducks nest in tree cavities and definitely breed in the park, evidenced by the presence every year of young ducklings on the river.
I do not expect to see the Eastern Phoebe until the very last week of the March – and then I can pretty much count on seeing it, often by the river near the footbridge. It has nested under the footbridge more than once. The phoebe is the earliest species in the flycatcher family to arrive and is a definite sign of spring.
While many woodpeckers remain through the winter (in Eliza Howell, the Red-bellied, Downy, and Hairy), the Northern Flicker is a woodpecker that heads south for the winter. Its foraging behavior is a little different from many woodpeckers, spending much of time on the ground searching for insects. It usually returns to Eliza Howell near the end of March and will be drilling a nesting cavity in less than a month, usually in a dead tree.
I sometimes think that I should include Song Sparrow (not pictured) among the March arrivals (# 11). Every other year or so, a Song Sparrow or two spend part of the winter in Eliza Howell. When they don’t, I can count on seeing them in March. In breeding season, I often see these sparrows carrying food for their young into thickets, but their well-hidden nests are extremely hard to find.
Some readers may be surprised that the American Robin, perhaps the most recognized of the early birds of spring, is not on this list. Robins are certainly found in much greater numbers starting in March in the park, but every year I see a few throughout the winter.
The appearance of these March species may not result in the frenzied excitement sometimes encountered in popular hotspots during the peak of warbler migration in May. For those of us ready for the first arrivals of spring, however, these early birds provide an occasion for celebration: the first migrants are returning!
An earlier version of this essay was published in The Flyway, the newsletter of Detroit Audubon, in 2012.