The days are getting longer, temperatures are rising and there’s a sense of anticipation in the air: spring migration is on its way! I had the opportunity to speak with bird expert and owner of Eastern Ontario Birding, Jon Ruddy and get his advice on preparing for spring migration.
Find out where to be during spring migration, when to expect different migrants and how to identify what you see.
This article was first published in 2017. I updated it in 2018.
Identifying Birds During Spring Migration
The Afternoon Birder: Jon, given the fast-paced nature of spring migration bird-watching, do you any have tips for identifying species during the ‘chaos’?
Jon: Take your time and enjoy the rush! Bird-watching during spring migration is exhilarating, so be sure to enjoy it.
If you have a camera, take “record shots” of birds, and review your photos afterwards. Consider joining social media bird groups – this is a great way to receive feedback on difficult ID’s and learn from others!
What if you’re new to birding?
If you’re new to birding, or only have a few seasons under your belt, consider joining a local nature club and join on some birding outings. Here, you’ll find kindred spirits and more experienced birders to lean on. Follow the more experienced birders around and see how they bird-watch. You’ll learn a great deal from simply being around them.
Know that some mornings, there are so many birds, that many must be left unidentified….and that this is OK! Even the experts let ’em go!
What guidebook do you recommend for studying and identifying spring migrants?
I recommend two guidebooks: The Sibley Guide to Birds and National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America.
In Sibley, the artistry is unparalleled in its accuracy; for example, his treatment of Empidonax flycatchers and Catharus thrushes is, in my opinion, the best out there. His coverage of subspecies and geographical variation is holistic and extremely well-informed, and he provides, through expert artistry, a sample of plumage variation in particularly variable species.
For shorebirds and gulls, the National Geographic guide perhaps has the edge. For example, the Dowitcher treatment in the National Geographic guide is excellent.
Regarding which guide you find to be superior, it is all a matter of personal choice.
Where to See Birds During Migration
What types of habitats should birders visit during migration to maximize their chances of seeing birds passing through?
Birders should position themselves along migration corridors, such as shoreline thickets and forests along the shores of the Great Lakes. Large rivers such as the Ottawa and the St. Lawrence are also superb migrant corridors.
For example, Ottawa’s best birding spot, Britannia Conservation Area, is the best for several reasons. One: it is alongside the Ottawa River–a main migration through-way. Two: here, the shoreline of the Ottawa River is ‘pinched’ in width at Britannia rapids; the Quebec Side and the Ontario side nearly touch (as seen on the map below). This encourages birds to find land, rest, then forage before continuing on their journey.
When will Different Species be Arriving
Jon, many birders are keen to have an idea of when birds will be arriving so they can plan their outings accordingly. Can you give us an idea of the order and timing of species migrating through eastern Ontario?
*Although the dates provided in this section are specific to eastern Ontario, the order of species’ arrivals will still be relevant to other eastern North American regions. You can consult eBird’s bar charts for your area to see when a particular species is likely to arrive.
Blackbirds such as Red-winged Blackbird and Common Grackle, “Prairie” (praticola) Horned Larks, and Ring-billed Gulls are among our first migrants here in eastern Ontario, often arriving sometime during late February.
Throughout Mid March
Migrant birds of prey such as Red-tailed Hawk, Golden Eagle, Bald Eagle, Turkey Vulture and Northern Goshawk are on the move.
The Third Week Through to the End of March
All sorts of birds arrive in numbers, including: Red-Shouldered Hawk, Northern Saw-whet Owl, American Woodcock, Killdeer, Eastern Meadowlark, and an abundance of waterfowl species. It is a wonderful time of year for a duck lover and certainly a great time of year for a goose lover!
Greater Snow Geese are typically found in large numbers in extreme eastern ON during this time; their numbers continue to build to astonishing proportions over the following weeks. Rarer geese lurk among the thousands of common geese, providing a classic “Where’s Waldo?” challenge awaiting all those willing to accept it! Ross’s Geese and hybrid Ross’s x Lesser Snow Geese are found among the Greater Snow Geese, and Cackling Geese are traditionally mixed in with Canada Geese.
Early to mid April
Many familiar feathered friends arrive in eastern Ontario. The following birds can be seen throughout this period:
• Golden-crowned Kinglet • Eastern Phoebe
• Fox Sparrow • Winter Wren
• Hermit Thrush • Field Sparrow
• Vesper Sparrow • Brown Creeper
• Tree Swallow • Northern Flicker
• Yellow-bellied Sapsucker • Belted Kingfisher
• Rusty Blackbird • Short-eared Owl
• Long-eared Owl • American Kestrel
• Sharp-shinned Hawk • Osprey
• Great Blue Heron • Horned Grebe
• Red-necked Grebe • Sandhill Crane
• Wilson’s Snipe • Double-crested Cormorant
• Bonaparte’s Gull • Tundra Swan
Mid to Late April
Shorebirds such as Pectoral, Greater Yellowlegs, and Lesser Yellowlegs have arrived, as have the first warblers: “Yellow” (hypochrysea) Palm Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Pine Warbler. Great Egrets are beginning to return to familiar marshes. Purple Finches, with their wonderfully melodious songs, are most-welcomed arrivals at this time! Broad-winged Hawks begin their impressive passage northward at this time, as well.
Swamp Sparrows begin to infiltrate the cattail marshes, with many migrants lingering and singing from wet thickets. Virginia Rails, American Bittern, and Sora have arrived (with Sora the latest of the three to return) and may all be heard from the same habitat.
Caspian Tern and Little Gull have arrived, and are most commonly encountered along the north shore of Lake ON at this time. Surf Scoter, Black Scoter, Red-throated and Common Loons are on the move, too.
Birds such as Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Savannah Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, and Brown Thrasher all arrive from mid-to-late April, as well.
The Third Week to the End of April
Building numbers of swallow species may be observed, and mixed-species flocks make for a fine and extremely enjoyable study! Look for arrivals of Barn, Northern Rough-winged, Cliff, Bank, and Purple Martin at this time.
One species in particular that is very popular among eastern ON birders is the Louisiana Waterthrush. This warbler arrives approximately two weeks earlier than its cousin, the Northern Waterthrush. Look for this species to arrive back to the Kingston area by late April.
This is also the time when the first of the vireo species, the Blue-headed Vireo, arrives, too!
From Early to the Third Week of May
This is the most popular period of spring birding. Numerous warbler species, vireo species, sparrow species, shorebird species, and thrush species pass through at this time.
Fan favourites, such as Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Indigo Buntings, Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Bobolinks, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have arrived and are delighting onlookers!
Nocturnal birders will be listening for Eastern Whip-poor-will, which generally arrive, en masse, by mid May. Some roads throughout Prince Edward County must certainly be seen as some of the best in eastern ON for listening for this species at night.
The latest migrants through our area are some of the shorebird species, Olive-sided Flycatchers, and the Empidonax flycatchers. Shorebird such as Red Knot, Whimbrel, White-rumped Sandpiper, and Red-necked Phalarope are characteristically late-season, with peak passage typically occurring during the final week of May.
Large flocks of Brant typically pass through at this time, as well, with the Ottawa River typically the spot for fine views of these species during spring passage.
Thank you for you time Jon. This is incredibly helpful information for birders in eastern Ontario and beyond!
Other Spring Migration Resources
I’ve compiled the following additional resources about spring migration:
Track wind direction and wind speed using this website. For optimal spring migration conditions, look for winds coming from the south.
Cornell’s BirdCast website provides migration forecasts in real time.
For warbler identification, I like The Warbler Guide.
Eastern Ontario Birding has a variety of guided bird tours during spring migration.
Lastly, I’m pretty sure everyone needs one of these awesome hats that I bought last year during migration! 🙂 Click the image to follow the link.
Good spring migration birding everyone!
-The Afternoon Birder
For tips on taking photographs of warblers during migration, read my article: How to Take Great Pictures of Warblers.