• Terry

Spring Migration: It Comes in Waves

This piece was written for Near North Now ( May 11, 2019

Spring Migration: It Comes In Waves

Terry Grabill from

Spring migration is an exciting time for birders, it’s also one of the times that we all become birders, to some extent. While the calendar proclaims spring in late March, here in my home in West Michigan, winter is often still holding on. It’s at this time that resident owls and Red-tailed Hawks are already tending eggs that will be this year’s offspring.

Who hasn’t measured the coming of relief from winter by the sighting of the first American Robin or Red-winged Blackbird? These harbingers of spring are usually the mature males arriving early to secure prime territory. The risk of resource shortage is a necessary trade-off for real estate attractive to the later-arriving females. These hardy souls often find themselves in snowy conditions. Along with the blackbirds and robins, waterfowl are among our earliest spring migrants. Late March and early April are busy times for ducks and geese. While the Canada Geese and Mallards are with us until fall, many interesting species use West Michigan as a stop-over to more northern breeding grounds. Often, we can find Ruddy Ducks, Buffleheads, Scaup, and several other divers on our lakes.

As April progresses, migratory raptors move northward. The Red-shouldered Hawks and Broad-winged Hawks appear with the loosened grip of winter along with the sanitation workers, the Turkey Vultures.

With the changing of the calendar from April to May comes several waves of songbirds. As a lifelong bird enthusiast, this time really gets my blood pumping. The tiny bursts of color and song traveling north now are the warblers. No other North American bird group captures the imagination of birders quite like these little gems. The first signal of warbler migration is the relatively plain Pine Warbler. Their sweet, slurred call is a welcome sound that really signals winter’s end in my mind. Another early warbler arrival is the Yellow-rumped Warbler. These are beautiful blue and gold birds with a diagnostic yellow patch above the base of their tails. Many times, I’ve been birding and found nearly all of my warbler sightings are “butter-butts”. Warblers are certainly not the only birds on the move in early May: Sparrows, those “little brown jobs”, arrive too. The White-crowned Sparrows are just passing through, but the White-throated, Chipping, and Song Sparrows make their homes here until fall.

Interestingly, species come through in relatively predictable sequences. The second group of warblers include Black-and-white and the marsh-loving Yellow Warblers and Common Yellowthroats. Later arrivals are some of our most brilliantly-feathered ones. The Magnolia and Blackburnian Warblers are among our summer residents that don’t arrive until mid-May. These fair-weather migrants are accompanied by the insect-eating flycatchers.

Spring migration is an excellent time to look for new arrivals as well as many birds that are just passing through. And, when Michigan spring turns nasty, these night migrants are sometimes held against their will by north winds and storms. These weather patterns in May often result in the stuff of birders’ dreams: Fallout. These birds are staged to move north and hunkered-down, waiting for the sky to clear. Trees can be found virtually “dripping” with birds forced to stay in this holding pattern until they are released by clearing skies.

I invite you to get outside this month and look at birds. You may be surprised by the diversity of color and shape that awaits you!


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