NINE MARCH ARRIVALS
by Leonard Weber
No matter how satisfying winter birding has been, I am always excited when March arrives. I am ready to start welcoming back the species that I have not seen since the fall. Many other migrants will be putting in their appearance later, but there is something special about the first spring arrivals each year.
My regular bird walks are in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park. Over the years, I have learned that I can anticipate the arrival here of the same nine species by the end of March. One or two other spring migrants might show up in March in any given year—and perhaps one of these nine might not show until April on a rare occasion—but the chances are very good that I will see these nine in Eliza Howell each March. It is easier to predict migration patterns than March weather.
The nine species have two characteristics in common. First, they spend the winters in the United States, only a few hundred miles south. They are not among the birds, the neotropical migrants, that winter in Central or South America. Second, southern Michigan is part of their breeding territory. They are returning here for the summer, not migrating through to destinations further north, as do many of the later spring migrants.
The Eliza Howell March nine are these: (1) Red-winged Blackbird, (2) Killdeer, (3) Common Grackle, (4) Brown-headed Cowbird, (5) Turkey Vulture, (6) Song Sparrow, (7) Great Blue Heron, (8) Wood Duck, and (9) Eastern Bluebird. In other locations, with different habitat, there are other regular March arrivals.
Some readers may be surprised that the American Robin, the most famous of the early birds of spring, is not on this list. Robins are certainly found in greater numbers in March in Eliza Howell, but almost every year I have already seen them in January or February.
The Red-winged Blackbird is often the first of the March nine to arrive. The males arrive before the females, who might not make it until April. When the first males arrive, their red shoulder patches are still winter dull. As the month advances, this changes noticeably, and by the end of March they are ready to welcome the females with bright scarlet patches. Red-winged Blackbirds nest in Eliza Howell Park every year.
The Killdeer is also a reliable March arrival, but never in great numbers, and its presence during the spring and summer is sporadic. I can count on seeing it sometime during March, but I cannot count on seeing it on every one of my visits to the park, in March or any later month. Nor have I ever seen evidence that it nests in Eliza Howell.
While the Common Grackle and the Brown-headed Cowbird are not species that excite many observers, their unfailing arrival in March is another announcement of spring in the neighborhood. Grackles nest in the park. Brown-headed Cowbirds, as brood parasites, do not build their own nests at all. They are, however, very successful in reproducing in the park, being specialists in adding an egg to those that are hatched by some other species. In the breeding season in 2011, I spent some time watching an adult Chipping Sparrow feed a considerably larger juvenile cowbird.
Hinckley, Ohio, celebrates the annual arrival of the Turkey Vulture every year on March 15. It is usually only a few days later that I see the first vultures of the year in Detroit. They soar overhead, surveying the terrain singly or in small numbers. They will appear repeatedly over the next few months, but I don’t know where they nest.
The Song Sparrow is another common bird in the park beginning in March. In breeding season, I often see these sparrows carrying food to their young, but their well-hidden nests are extremely hard to find. Once in a while, a Song Sparrow spends part of the winter in Eliza Howell, but that is the exception. Most years they are absent until March.
The Rouge River flows south through Eliza Howell, and less than two miles downriver there is a Great Blue Heron rookery. This might be where the herons that forage in the park nest, though I don’t know that for sure. I do know that I can expect their arrival along the river or in the spring-flooded bottomland in March.
Of the birds on this list, the Wood Duck may be the most thrilling and the most mysterious. It arrives regularly on the river in March, the only duck besides the Mallard that I normally see here. The male in the spring is so striking, especially in the sunlight, that it always produces a “wow” response. The unanswered question, even after years of watching, is where the Wood Ducks have their tree cavity nests. The presence on the river every year of young ducklings suggests that they are likely nesting close to the river. Perhaps 2012 will be the year I find a Wood Duck nest.
A few years ago, the Eastern Bluebird would not have been on this list. It is only recently that it has become more regular at Eliza Howell Park, where it now nests. While Eastern Bluebirds are sometimes seen at other locations in southern Michigan in the winter, I have not yet seen them here until March.
The appearance of these March species does not result in the frenzied excitement sometimes encountered in popular hotspots during the peak of warbler migration in May. But for those of us ready for the first arrivals of spring, these early birds, as common as most of them are, provide an occasion for celebration: the first migrants are returning!