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.

Early birds and February Feeder Survey results


By Benjamin P. Burtt

TOPIC: The Spring migration has begun. Comments are made about the birds that have already arrived and those that are expected in the next two weeks before the next column comes out. Some details are presented on the phoebe, the first flycatcher to arrive.

ALSO :The results of the Feeder Survey for the first week of February.


This column is divided into two sections

Section 1 includes material about the phoebe and other species that are expected to arrive shortly . This appeared in the Post Standard today.

Section 2 presents the results of the February Feeder Survey, what birds were seen, the birds that are abundant, those that are scarce and some of the unusual birds that were spotted.

The Spring migration of the birds always begins in early March in Central New York .

Birds that normally appear during the first week of March are the male red-winged blackbird, Canada goose, grackle and cowbird. A few of you may have already seen these birds.

What new birds can we expect to see this coming week? Most all of us think of the robin as the REAL sign of spring. The robins begin to move in from the south about March 10 each year. But what about the ones we see before that? Are they early migrants? The answer is that it is very hard to tell. Here is the reason.

In the fall, most of the robins go south. However, for some reason every year, there are flocks of robins that do not migrate. There are not many of these flocks, but there are always robins about Central New York through the winter. They find an area where there are berries to eat and unfrozen streams or marshes with muddy spots in which they can probe for food. My guess is that having found such a spot, they stay there for the winter. The people who live nearby see them all winter long. The Feeder Survey shows that there are robins being seen every month from October through May, but only from a few scattered locations.

As the day become longer compared to the length of the night, there is a change in the hormones in most birds. This tends to produce a restlessness, an “urge to migrate” in those that go south as part of the approach of the breeding season. This restlessness also affects those small flocks that did not migrate and have spent the winter in Central New York.

During February, these wintering birds start to move around more. If they now wander into your yard, it naturally raises the question, are these robins that have returned early from the south?

On the average, the robins that have been south start to return about March 10. Suddenly, one day near the 10th we see them everywhere. The ones we saw in February though were probably here somewhere in Central New York all winter.

This week in addition to robins, we should spot a few migrant bluebirds. Killdeer and meadowlarks are due. Turkey vultures will probably be seen overhead.

During the week after that, March 13-19, the female red-winged blackbird is expected. Also due that week, is the phoebe. It is the first flycatcher to arrive. The other members of the flycatcher family do not show up until May.

The eastern phoebe, the first flycatcher to migrate will arrive about March 15. It is a gray-brown bird that bobs its tail down and up while perched. You can attract it to a nesting shelf about 6 inches square placed in a sheltered spot under the eaves, on a porch or inside a barn. (This painting is from Peterson’s “Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America” (Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Co.)

Why does the phoebe come back so early and how does it survive when there are no insects to eat? First of all, it doesn’t go very far south for the winter. It spends the winter in the Southern U.S. All the other flycatchers go to Central or South America for the winter and do not show up here until May when insects are available here.

I found a list of the foods that the phoebe eats in a 1967 book “Attracting Birds: from the prairies to the Atlantic” by Verne Davison. In the list of the plant food that it eats, there were 6 listed and only two have berries that could still be available when the bird returns in March, they are sumac and poison ivy . .

Those are the only fruits that persist until spring that were listed for the phoebe, but I suspect that it may find other berries that are left from the previous fall. Many other fruits that it eats in the summer were listed, but these are the only ones that have berries that are still available when it returns in the Spring.

If you see phoebes feeding on berries this spring, I would be very interested to have you tell me what they are eating.

The phoebe is a gray-brown, sparrow-like flycatcher with a light breast and a black bill. It has the habit of bobbing its tail downward and this helps identify it.

Its name comes from the song which is a hoarse, two syllable “fee-bee’, fee-bee “. The first “fee-bee” goes down in pitch, while the second goes up.

Sometimes the courtship call of the chickadee in late winter is thought to be the song of the phoebe. That of the chickadee is a clear, whistled call while that of the phoebe is hoarse and is not heard until late March.

SECTION 2 The results of the February Feeder Survey
During the first week of February, many readers watched their yard and counted the numbers of birds of each species. At the end of that week, they sent me a list showing the maximum number of birds of each species they saw at any one time during the week.

For example, if they saw 25 blue jays that week, but never more than 4 at a time, then 4 was the number they put on the list for that species. We know that at least that many were in the vicinity.

The first bird to arrive from the south is the male red-winged blackbird which comes about March 1. While a few red-wings have been here all winter, the migrants usually show up in Central New York during the first week of March and begin to sing. However, that first date can vary a week either way. This year I am still looking forward to hearing the song, “oh-ker-ee”, which for me says that spring has really arrived.

On the February feeder survey, out of 100 reports there normally would be perhaps 10 that listed one or more winter resident red-wings. This time there was only one report of 15 birds. They have been scarce all winter.

More bird news from the February Feeder Survey
For each of you who feeds birds, it is fun to be able to compare what you saw in your yard during the first week of February with the observations of others who feed birds. The February Feeder Survey has now been tabulated.

Here are the birds most often seen, and the number present at the average feeder during the period from February 6 to 12.

There were five species that were seen by over 90% of the observers. Here are those species with the average number of each that was listed on the reports. You can compare this to your count - - - Chickadees 5, mourning dove 9, cardinal 4, crow 20 and white-breasted nuthatch 2.

The two most numerous birds were the mourning dove and the goldfinch. More abundant than normal were tree sparrows, titmice, juncos and purple finches. While the tally for redpolls was low, the few people who had them had about 20 each.

The count for red-wings, grackles and cowbirds was low. Only a few bluebirds and pheasants were reported.

Some species do not travel in flocks and we usually see just the male and the female. This is true of the following species in which we see only 1 or 2. These include the downy woodpecker, the white-breasted nuthatch, the red-breasted nuthatch and the tufted titmouse.

The short listsEvery list is important for I am interested in knowing what birds people see. Some people have a better habitat than do others and have a greater variety of species. However, to learn what birds are around, we need to have reports whether they are long or short.

The fourth grade class at the New Haven Elementary School continues to send a list that is forwarded by their teacher Mrs. Norma Griffin. Their feeders are in a courtyard and it is a bit hard for birds to find the feeders. This time they had goldfinches and a mourning dove.

Listing 6 species were Eugenia Fish of Cortland and Susan Fondy of Watertown. Dan Frantis of Syracuse listed 7. Reporting 8 species were Charlels Bruner of Brooktondale, Judith Miller at Pulaski and Barb Robinson and Bob and Shirley Rock at Oswego.

The average feeder in early February had 14 species. So now lets look at the longest lists.

The longest listsAt Waterloo, Linda Quackenbush had 32. Ken Smith had 28 at Freeville. There were 25 on the list from John and Elizabeth Wallace of Baldwinsville. Listing 24 species were Ken Zoller at West Winfield and Lawrence Abrahamson of Marcellus. Tallying 23 were Steve and Dorothy Hanzlik of Whitney Point and Steve Swensen of Baldwinsville. In Perryville,

Kathy and Scott Trefz listed 22. Seeing 21 were Judy Thurber of Liverpool ,David Pardee of Brewerton and Paul Radway of Pompey. There were 20 on the lists from Matt Young of DeRuyter and Sharon Robarge of Richland.

Scarce birdsSome species were reported by only one person. In Dewitt, Estelle Hahn had a screech owl. Judy Thurber observed 2 great black-backed gulls at Liverpool. Dorothy Coye reported goldeneyes at Skaneateles. In Waterloo, Linda Quackenbush had the only red-wings and horned larks. Ken Smith tallied a mockingbird and a few golden crowned kinglets. Matt Young had 2 rusty blackbirds near Deruyter. Ilse Vogelpoel saw a chipping sparrow in Manlius.


Below is a list of all species reported. For each bird, the first figure is the number of them listed on 100 reports and the number in parentheses is the percentage of the reports that listed that species.

Canada goose 364 (20);
Ducks: black 2 (1); mallard 30 (4); goldeneye 8 (1); common merganser 6 (3).

Daytime birds of prey: sharp-shinned 18 (18); Cooper’s 21 (18); red-tailed 32 (28; kestrel 2 (2); pheasant 3 (3); ruffed grouse 2 (2); turkey 118 (8).

Gulls: ring-billed 17 (8); herring 5 (2); great black-backed 2 (1); rock dove 139 (15; mourning dove 917 (97); screech owl 1 (1); horned owl 7 (4).

Woodpeckers: red-bellied 41 (32); downy woodpecker 189 (81); hairy 94 (50); flicker 3 (3); pileated 3 (2);

Horned lark 9 (1). Blue jay 311 (77); crow 4059(2000 in 1) (92); raven 11 (4); black-capped chickadee 490 (98); titmouse 147 (67); red-breasted nuthatch 50 (32); white-breasted nuthatch 141 (90); brown creeper 7 (6); Carolina wren 4 (4); golden crowned kinglet 4 (1); bluebird 9 (4); robin 497 (27); mockingbird 3(2); starling 678 (59); cedar waxwing 119 (5); cardinal 419 (97).

Sparrows: tree 518 (55); song 6 (3); white-throated 73 (24); junco 510 (85).

Red-winged blackbird 15 (1); rusty blackbird 2 (1); cowbird 30 (6); grackle 4 (3); purple finch 228 (24); house finch 298 (46); redpoll 162 (8); siskin 24 (8); goldfinch 855 (80); evening grosbeak 23 (2); house sparrow 613 (55).

The March feeder survey starts today and ends Saturday.
Please watch whenever you can and keep a record of the number of birds of each species that you see each time. At the end of the week, list the largest number of each species that you saw at any one time during that week.

Arrange all the species in the order shown in the list on this page from last month. Put each species on a separate line with the number first, followed by the birds name. Please write the number of species at the top of the list.

At the end of the week, put your list on a postcard or in a letter and send it to B.P.Burtt, Smokey Hollow Rd., Jamesville, NY 13078-9548. You can send results by EMAIL to Please include the name of your town ).

If you would like to read the complete instructions, click on the word instructions. To return to this column click on ”Back” at the top of the screen.