Feb 12, 2020 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, February 2020

Top 10 Signs of Early Spring

The first species that usually tunes up his song is tufted titmouse, singing Peter, Peter, Peter on sunny afternoons in late January.

By the time you read this, spring may have a firm grip on your local area, but February is usually still winter where I live. It's going to happen, though, spring is. Here are my top 10 long-awaited signs of spring. These are, of course, the signs in southeastern Ohio. Your signs might be totally different. But I hope these will help you think about, or become more aware of, your own signs of spring.

10. Songbird songs. The first species that usually tunes up his song is tufted titmouse, singing Peter, Peter, Peter on sunny afternoons in late January. His song is the first aural reminder that winter will eventually fade. House and purple finches, white-breasted nuthatches, northern cardinals, and song sparrows will soon join the choir.

9. Clumps of raptors/pairs of raptors. Even in urban backyards, keep looking up in late winter. Raptors are on the move. Depending upon where you live, some may be local year-round residents—red-tailed hawks in my neighborhood—some are winter visitors, and some are birds of passage, returning north to set up territories. Late winter and early spring are excellent times for raptor watching. By mid-February, many of our resident red-tailed and red-shouldered hawk pairs are already courting each other, complete with acrobatic flights, dives, and piercing screams.

Barred owls.

8. Owls hooting. Hawks aren't the only raptors making noise. In the proper habitat, late winter evenings are punctuated with hoots from great horned and barred owls. Some nest in the cemeteries in our little town, and nighttime dog walkers are rewarded by hearing them. Listen carefully at dusk, and you may hear screech-owls whinnying in far off woods, or in your own backyard. Owls can be hard to hear if you don't get outside to listen. Late winter is the best time to catch the concert of hoots, because many owl species are setting up territories and starting the breeding cycle. Spend an hour outside right at dusk, listening quietly, and you might tune into a little night music.

7. Trees and flower buds. In southeastern Ohio, silver maples and red maples are the first trees to show signs of budding. It will be a while before the bare, lifeless branches will offer a reddish glow—the effect created by the thousands of growing red buds at the end of every twig, but watching for it builds hope. It won't be too long before every living tree in our woods will be about to burst into leaf. When the budding is at its fullest, we know the blue-gray gnatcatchers will be here soon.

6. Duck flights. As the Great Lakes begin to open up and ice disperses, we get skeins of ducks coming up the Ohio River Valley. It's so exciting to take a Sunday drive along the rivers and past the ponds in our area, because each one offers a chance to see the first stunning drake bufflehead, ring-necked duck, or even a northern pintail. Our first spring ducks are often the hardy mallards and black ducks, followed closely by the impressive wood ducks. If you have a pond on your property, watch for waterfowl to stop and rest.

Red-bellied woodpecker.

5. Woodpeckers drumming. On our farm we hear woodpeckers drumming in early spring and it continues until the following fall. Woodpeckers are drumming both as a territorial announcement and as a part of spring courtship. Some suburban woodpeckers have discovered the great resonance of chimney flues and drainpipes, much to the dismay of slumbering human homeowners. Among our drummers are pileated, red-bellied, hairy, and downy woodpeckers, and northern flicker. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers tap our birch trees each spring but do not stick around to breed. And red-headed woodpeckers (my favorite birds) nest in a small colony just a couple of miles away.

4. Juncos leaving. Although we'll have a few with us until early May, by late February, our junco numbers are slowly dwindling. I'm always fascinated by these little grayish wonders that seem to be with us no matter how bad the weather, all winter long, scratching out seed bits from under our feeders. This species is a notable “get” for our spring Big Day list in early May, when a late-lingering junco may visit our feeder, and for our Big Sit day in early October, when the first junco of winter magically appears at our feeders. Before they leave, our juncos sing and jostle around our yard with increasing intensity, practicing for the coming breeding season.

3. Peepers. One night soon I'll be making my way from the garage to our front door (a walk of about 100 feet) and I'll hear that high-lonesome sound of spring. No, it's not a Bill Monroe bluegrass ballad; it's the evening chorus of spring peepers—those tiny cold-hardy amphibians that sing from every wet patch of ground in the woods. Peepers start vocalizing so early in spring they might be more accurately called late-winter peepers. Hearing them lets us know that ground is thawing and the springs are starting to flow.

2. That spring smell. I love to inhale the earthy spring smell that the land produces in late February and early March. It's equal parts rain and soil, grass and ozone, creating a perfume that no amount of chemical wizardry can replicate. Sometimes in late winter, I stand in the front yard at dusk, nose pointed skyward, eyes closed, and breathe deeply for a few minutes. It's heaven.

American woodcock.

1. Woodcock. It's often when I'm coming in from the garage at the end of a workday in mid-February, perhaps when I'm smelling the spring air, or listening to the first spring peepers, that I hear the first peent! of our American woodcock. He's a tough old coot, often starting his spring performances when there's still snow on the meadow and ice in the valleys. But he knows that the early male woodcock gets not only the earthworms, but also the gals. We cherish the evenings we spend listening to his nasal calls and watching his silhouette against the pink western horizon as he spirals skyward and twitter-tumbles back to our old meadow. Of all the signs of spring I see or hear or smell or feel each year, he's my favorite.

About Bill Thompson, III

Bill Thompson, III, was the team captain for Watching Backyard Birds from its inception 23 years ago through his death on March 25, 2019. So much of what he wrote is timeless and remains informative, helpful, and inspiring.

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  • That doesn't address my concern about the bird houses. I'm on a tiny piece of property (40x100) so there's not much room to plant a heck of a lot or places birds could put nests once the bird houses are gone.
    by Linda DiPierro, Mon, 25 May 2020
  • Plant some native plants in your yard that will attract pollinators and produce berries and nuts. There should be a local society that has a list of recommended plants, shrubs, and trees.
    by Ladylanita, Mon, 25 May 2020
  • Same concerns here. See above post. For your situation I would consider planting a few native plants that will naturally produce berries and seeds that the birds in your area need to survive. Try planting some that will yield foods for all seasons.
    by Ladylanita, Mon, 25 May 2020
  • I've thought about this myself. One thing I considered doing is leaving behind some bird food and a gift card to my local wild bird store with a note asking the new homeowners to please continue feeding the birds. Don't know how well that work but it's worth a try.
    by Ladylanita, Mon, 25 May 2020
  • thanks for the article. I believe that I may have spotted my first hairy woodpecker this morning. we see the downy woodpecker often. it's small. the hairy woodpecker, when compared with the downy, is HUGE. also, the downy feeds at the feeder like most birds--standing upright. This bird, because of its size, hung from the feeder perch with most of it's body below the feeder--like the red belly woodpeckers that we see often. we live is strasburg va. is it possible that we saw a hairy woodpecker this morning?
    by PEretired, Sat, 23 May 2020