Every season has something about it that confirms your suspicions; some species of flower coming into bloom, the first leaf-fall, the first frost. Spring has so many joyous moments it’s little wonder many people consider it their favorite season.
Whilst summer can feel long and sunshine filled with the promise of holidays, and both autumn and winter have their sensational beauty in the colors of the trees and the pristine purity of snow, spring has symbolized new life for millennia, simply because it is indeed the season when millions of the world’s species mate, reproduce, proliferate.
For the world’s birds, spring means breeding season, one of the most taxing yet rewarding parts of their life cycle.
1. The return of the migrants
For so many people, me included, the impatience of waiting for Spring begins in the latter half of winter when we know that those birds we are so happy to see and hear in April and May are finally on their way. They still have many miles to go – for some, thousands – and sadly many won’t make it, but as we think of their incredible endeavor we can do our best to prepare for their return.
In the UK, some of the earliest arrivals may already be there – Northern wheatears (their second name comes from the Old English, the delightful ‘white arse’) will be heading to upland areas from as early as the end of February and will continue to arrive through to May. The onomatopoeically named Chiffchaff should start chiming its distinctive two-note repetitive call from hedgerows and trees in early March, followed by sand martins, the first of the holy trinity that also comprises swallows and swifts.
Come April, the barn swallows and then later the sickle-winged swifts will dominate the skies, skimming over water for newly hatched insects and a refreshing drink. In the US, warblers of all hue and size will ride the southerly winds up the four major Atlantic, Pacific, Mississippi and Central flyways. Red winged blackbirds, Baltimore orioles and American robins herald the arrival of spring across much of the continent, although there are of course many robins who have been resident all year awaiting the return of their cousins. The spring migration is one of the most highly-anticipated events in the birding calendar, bringing our eager would-be observers on even the chill days that remain.
2. From the woods
In the winter, many species retreat to forested areas and woodlands, seeking the little warmth these habitats have held onto as the temperatures drop and the ice and snow come. Cavities in trees offer a place to roost together to spread the warmth, and vegetation traps water far better than exposed land, thus the thermometer always reads a little higher among the branches and foliage that remains.
Resident birds, having hidden away for almost a quarter of the year, will slowly but surely venture out to the open stretches, meaning you are more likely to see them at your feeders and in your yards or out in the sky on a walk. Birds like Eurasian jays in Europe and any resident Eastern phoebes and chickadees in the US will begin to appear on the edges of settlements to see what the new season has to offer.
3. Distant drummers
Remaining in the forests, as March passes, a familiar and much-missed sound penetrates the dense, wooded atmosphere – the rapid, earnest and bewitching drumming of the woodpeckers. Spring is mating season after all, and it’s time to show others this is your spot.
Great and Lesser spotted woodpeckers in the UK and Europe, and in the US, downy, hairy and pileated woodpeckers will all be hammering out their presence to affirm their territory. Once a safe and secure spot is established, the courting rituals can commence.
4. A cuckoo calls
Although in decline like much of the world’s bird species, common cuckoos in the UK and Europe still hold their place in the hearts of many as the first true sign of spring. These brood parasites will soon start searching for someone else’s nest to leave their eggs in as April comes and goes and will call out their namesake as they attract a mate.
The 14th of April, St. Tiburtius Day, is traditionally the first day to hear a cuckoo call according to Rudyard Kipling in his poem The Cuckoo’s Song, although of course this date varies across the continent.
5. Chorus line and songtime
While darkness still hugs the early hours, the birds know something is coming. Should you find yourself stirring around 4am in early to mid-March, steel yourself and venture out of the house in something warm and listen – the faint chirping and chattering of birds waking up can be heard. The first ones warm their vocal cords up about an hour before sunrise, and as the weeks pass, more and more birds join in until there is a veritable cacophony of birdsong as day breaks in May.
International Dawn Chorus Day first materialized as an unconventional birthday treat in 1984 for Chris Baines, a UK naturalist. Everyone had so much fun they did it again the next year, and now thousands of people across the temperate climate regions of the world get themselves up just before dawn on the first Sunday in every May to hear this frankly astounding aural experience.
Birdsong will continue throughout the day as the months march on, reaching its loudest as we head into summer. Some assert that birdsong serves only two functions, to attract a mate and to claim territory, both to ensure a successful breeding season; others say that the birds sing because they can, the same way we do – for the sheer fun of it. If anyone has heard the simply stupendous vocal arrangements of the wood thrush or the nightingale, you’d be hard pressed to deny that enjoyment is involved.
6. The coats of many colors
In the US, one of the most celebrated sights of spring is the molt of the American goldfinch, whose winter coat of drab olive greens is gradually replaced by vibrant lemon, cadmium and of course golden feathers bringing that familiar and splendid sight to our sore eyes. These finches love thistle seed, so place dome in a feeder to bring these vibrant sunny souls to your yard.
Elsewhere all across the world, the changing of winter plumage to spring or breeding plumage is one of the most remarkable events to witness and helps immensely with your ID skills. Waders like Black-tailed godwits change from a dull gray and white to display pumped-up chests of burnt russets and reds; other water birds such as wood ducks, mandarin ducks and mallards all break out their sparkly new multicoloured jackets in spring.
The scarlet tanager and blue grosbeak become just that; some birds sprout long plumes atop their heads when spring comes around, like egrets and herons. If you can identify a male bird in both winter and breeding plumage then you have some knowledge to be proud of right there.