The Spring migration


By Benjamin P. Burtt

TOPIC: The Spring migration and the birds that are expected in the next two weeks. Special attention is given to the fox sparrow and to the American woodcock with its spectacular courtship ritual that includes singing on the ground, an aerial flight with wings that whistle and a zig-zag dive to the ground.

Incoming Flights

This week in our yards we can expect to see the first migrant song sparrows. Showing up in the yard the following week( 3/27-4/2), are the sapsucker, junco, flicker, and tree swallow. The winter wren will be back soon too.

Other Spring arrivals.

Many of the new birds that appear from the south in the next two weeks will not visit feeders, but you may see them near your home.

It is time for the kestrels to return. While quite a few of these small falcons winter here, most go further south. Thus the local population will increase as the migrants return.

The harrier or marsh hawk will be seen flying low over meadows and marshes any day now. The kingfisher returns and so does the snipe. Great blue herons are due.

The American woodcock or timber doodle as it has been called, moves in from the south this week. It has a very long bill and large, bulging eyes placed high on its head. This painting is from the Peterson Field Guide, “Birds of Eastern and Central North America” fifth edition
( Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co )

The woodcock will soon be engaged in courtship. It has a spectacular ritual involving singing on the ground, an aerial flight with wings that whistle and a head long dive to the ground again. These activities start in early April and last a week or two.

To see the show, drive to a marshy field with scattered brush just about sundown. Stop your car and listen for a single “peent” note that will be repeated at intervals. It may be better to just stand quietly and wait. The call is not musical, but it is buzzy and some have likened it to a “Bronx Cheer”. In fact it sounds something like the note made by the nighthawk in flight.

I remember one such visit in particular. The sky was clear and there was no wind. On the ground, the details of bush and meadow were blending into grays as the light faded rapidly. That is the time the ritual normally begins. Promptly, the first call came from an open spot a short distance in front of us.

A few seconds later, the call was repeated. We crept a bit closer. The woodcock generally stands in a little clearing. Sometimes he walks or struts about, but more often he just stands still in the same spot while holding his tail erect as he calls.

After a few such calls the, "peenting" stopped and the bird took to the air with rapidly beating wings. He flew in wide circles as he went higher and higher. When he was about 50 feet above the ground his outer wing feathers were somehow adjusted to make a “twittering” sound. It could be described as a rapid "winnow-winnow-winnow." When he reached a height of 300 feet this twittering stopped. Then he started his descent, chirping as he zig-zagged back and forth.

Then, as if a sputtering motor had run out of gas, the sounds abruptly ceased. Silently, the woodcock glided steeply towards the ground. He leveled off just above the earth, and dropped into the clearing from which he had come.

A moment later, the "peent" sound was heard and the ritual started again. After several such performances when the male returns to the ground he will find a female or two near his courting spot. If so, his performance has been successful!

Each time the bird goes into the air, the observer can creep a little closer to the courting ground. You can get within a dozen feet if you are careful. Eventually, the light fades and one can only follow the whole process by ear.

They often go through the ritual at dawn, but I have never tried to see it then. I understand that while the evening performance lasts about a half-hour, that at dawn can be twice as long.

Fond of Earthworms

The woodcock feeds mostly on earthworms and its long bill and the strange placement of its eyes are an aid in its search for this prey. It can seize worms that are several inches underground. It probes its very long bill deep into soft earth.

With most of its bill in the soil it can not open the entire bill to grab the worm. However, the upper part of the bill at the tip is rubber-like and flexible. Just this tip can be opened to seize the worm.

While probing for worms with its head down near the earth, it would not be able to spot danger if its eyes were on the side of its head like they are on most birds. However, since its eyes are placed near the top of its head, it can still be on the lookout for danger.

The fox sparrowNormally, the first fox sparrows show up about now. They are, in my view, the most attractive members of the sparrow family. They spend the winter from southern Pennsylvania to the Gulf of Mexico. They are now on their way north to breed.

The summer home of the fox sparrow is in the northern forests of Canada. There, it nests on the ground from the limit of the trees south to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and into the northern parts of the Provinces of Western Canada. In Newfoundland, it is one of the most common nesting birds.

South of the St. Lawrence River, there are very few nesting spots. In Nova Scotia, there is only one island off the coast where the bird is found. Its summer neighbors there include such species as the rough-legged hawk, the pine grosbeak, the gray-cheeked thrush, the white-crowned sparrow and the northern shrike.

Fox sparrows will be passing through Central New York from now until early May as they head to those northern areas to breed. We will see them again in the fall as they go south. Only during these two brief periods are they spotted here.

The fox sparrow is the largest of the sparrows that we see. The breast is heavily streaked. Like the song sparrow, the streaks come together to form a central spot on the breast. However the other markings on the fox sparrow are much broader and darker than those of the song sparrow.

Its most distinguishing identification mark is the rusty-brown red rump and tail. It is this fox-like color that gives it its name. Like the towhee, it feeds by scratching away the dead leaves in its busy search for fallen seeds or insect food. Both feet are used and it makes quite a commotion in the brush. In fact, one usually hears the scratching and rustling in the leaves before actually seeing the bird.

In secluded thickets

From late March until early May, the fox sparrow will be found in woods or secluded thickets or amongst the bushes at the edge of a field. It is hard to spot it there. Since it feeds right on the ground, it is seldom seen perched much above the ground.

When disturbed, the bird usually will fly into the lowest branches of some nearby tree and be quite conspicuous and easy to identify. In a moment or two it will return to the ground to scratch around some more.

Watch for it on the ground around your home, scratching in the leaves or picking up spilled seed below your feeders. It will be further north by May 5, so now is the time to see it as it passes through.