Mar 28, 2018 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, April 2018

Top 10 Signs of Spring

American woodcock. In early spring, at dawn and dusk, male woodcocks find a nearby clearing and perform a courtship "dance" on the ground and in the sky that is almost unbelievable.
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10. Singing. The resident birds started tuning up a few weeks ago northern cardinals, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, Carolina wrens, and eastern towhees. Now the winter visitors—birds that will eventually leave our part of the world to head back north to breed—are joining the chorus. These include dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows. I'm still waiting for the early spring visit from a fox sparrow or two. I love to hear them sing.

9. Drumming. From the middle of our meadow, we can hear the distinctive territorial drumming styles of all five woodpecker species that nest here on out 80 acres. From smallest to largest, these are: downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers, northern flicker, and pileated woodpecker. Listen for your woodpecker neighbors. I'm sure they are drumming, too.

An American goldfinch (male) in the last stages of molting.

8. Goldfinches Changing Color. You still have to look closely, but I definitely see some brightening in the yellow feathers of our American goldfinches. Goldfinches molt into their drab winter plumage in late fall and keep this dull appearance until late March or early April. Our male goldfinches are also starting to show a bit of black on the crown, too. This is a really welcome sign of spring.

7. Blackbirds. The first red-winged blackbirds showed up under the feeders in early March. All day long we hear redwings, common grackles, and even a few rusty blackbirds flying overhead, chukking as they head north. The first redwing of spring has always been a much more notable and reliable “first” sign of spring than the first American robin.

6. Lawn robins. They aren't an everyday visitor yet, but most days—especially early and late—we are getting small flocks of American robins landing in the trees along our ridge-top farm yard. If the ground isn't frozen they drop down to stalk and probe around on the lawn for earthworms and other edibles. Once our nesting pair returns and the male is singing his evening serenade, I'll know that winter is truly gone.

A Carolina wren carries moss into a nest box.

5. Mossy wrens. Our Carolina wren pair is gathering moss and sticks and starting nest construction in the copper bucket that hangs under the eaves by our front door. I'm thinking they want to get an early start to launch a brood into the world before it gets too balmy outside and the black rat snakes wake up. Despite our vigilance, the black snake got the wrens' second brood last year. This year we're going to try to do a better job of baffling the nest.

4. Gobbles. Two mornings ago I hear a tom turkey give his loud, sputtering gobble from somewhere in our east valley. I mentioned it to our kids, Phoebe and Liam, and they both said "Oh yeah, we hear turkeys gobbling every morning!" I'm so pleased that they noticed and that they know what that sound is!

3. Bluebirds getting busy. The pair of eastern bluebirds that nests on the west side of our yard is in major courtship mode. The male is singing his head off, flying down to the nest box, waving his wings like crazy. The female obliges him by flying to the box and hopping in. Today I noticed she was carrying some grass in her bill. It won't be long now until the nest is finished and five or so pale blue eggs appear.

Tree swallow pair.

2. Tree swallow flyover. Another spring and summer nesting bird on our farm is the tree swallow. We always have at least one pair and sometimes two in the nest boxes out in the meadow. While our "trees" aren't back yet, I did spot a couple of individual tree swallows flying high overhead last weekend, headed north. This early returning swallow can survive by switching its diet to fruits and berries when cold weather makes flying insects scarce.

1. Timberdoodle. We're lucky to have nesting American woodcocks on our farm. This is a member of the shorebird family that prefers to live and nest in the woods. In early spring, at dawn and dusk, male woodcocks find a nearby clearing and perform a courtship "dance" on the ground and in the sky that is almost unbelievable. After turning in a circle, issuing regular vocal peents, the male springs into flight, headed into the darkening sky, corkscrewing higher and higher, his wings issuing a soft whistling tone. Reaching the apex at about 300 feet or so above the ground, he then begins tumbling downward, wings still whistling, and adds a twittering vocalization to the mix. A few seconds later, he is back on the ground, starting the display all over again. Watching this amazing display each spring, when the air is still full of winter's chill, is my favorite sign of spring on this old farm where I live.



About Bill Thompson, III

Bill Thompson III is the editor of Bird Watcher's Digest by day. He's also a keen birder, the author of many books, a dad, a field trip leader, an ecotourism consultant, a guitar player, and blogger.

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  • #18 in the Gallery is misidentified as a Tree Sparrow, instead of Tree Swallow.
    by Ron, Mon, 23 Apr 2018
  • yep i do the microwave too....they don't break down in our compost so the birds get them!
    by ecumam2, Wed, 18 Apr 2018
  • As you probably know, sunflower seed hulls have a bio-chemical in them, (allelopathic), which keeps any other seeds from sprouting, in the same area. I have used this fact, to a purpose. With a large build up, each year (& yes, it is a bare spot!), I rake up the "bounty" & spread them on areas of bulbs & perennials to keep the annual weeds down. It's also helpful near blue squill bulbs, which drop seeds through the fence that divides a perennial garden, from the lawn , where they are welcome to naturalize. The garden can be over run with them, so sunflower hulls can keep the sprouting down.
    by Plntlady, Tue, 17 Apr 2018
  • I do this in a small garden, near our road, where winter road sand can build up & bury the small, low-growing plants that live there. In spring I just pick up the burlap & shake it back onto the road, before the road crew comes by with the street sweeper, in spring.
    by Plntlady, Tue, 17 Apr 2018
  • Thanks, now I can not worry so much. It's April 17, here in NE Vt. & is snowing big snowflakes. Yesterday we have scary, high winds & it's refusing to be spring. A phoebe, which was so puffed up I didn't recognize it, except for it's insectivore beak, showed up near the feeders, on my porch. It flew to a low branch, in a sugar maple & has been huddled there for quite a while. I was sure it was a phoebe when I observed it's tail bobbing, when first landing. I assume it is now being still, trying to reserve body heat. I have a frozen, cut pomegranate, hanging from the porch & we have an ample supply of sumac berries & other native fruiting plants, so hopefully it will find what it needs.... Also spotted a brown creeper, on the trunk of one of our big, old sugar maples, this morning.
    by Plntlady, Tue, 17 Apr 2018