Guide to Spring Arrivals in Eastern Ontario

Hi everyone,

As winter makes way for spring, our minds begin to ponder the wonderful birding days soon to come! Here’s a rough guide as to when some of our favourite bird species arrive back to eastern Ontario, and how to maximize your birding opportunities when they arrive! Earlier this week, my friend Laura, aka The Afternoon Birder, inquired about spring birding. Specifically, she inquired about the order of spring arrivals, and where I would recommend birding in order to maximize my opportunities to see spring migrants 🙂 I have included some of our discussion below. Enjoy!

Question: Which species arrive when?

Late February often signals the beginning of spring migration, with blackbirds such as Red-winged Blackbird and Common Grackle on the move N. “Prairie” (praticola) Horned Larks arrive and set up territories. Ring-billed Gulls are spotted hanging around in McDonald’s parking lots, eyeing kids walking by with french fries in their hands. The above examples are among our first migrants here in eastern Ontario.

Early to mid-March, raptors come into focus, with migrant birds of prey such as Red-tailed Hawk, Golden Eagle, Bald Eagle, Turkey Vulture, and Northern Goshawk on the move. As the ice breaks up and open water appears, waterfowl numbers begin to rise. White-winged gulls, Iceland and Glaucous, numbers begin to swell along the north shore of Lake Ontario. Typically, the first Killdeer arrive along the north shore of Lake Ontario by mid-March.

From the third week through to the end of March, all sorts of birds arrive in numbers, including Red-shouldered Hawk, Northern Saw-whet Owl, American Woodcock, Great Blue Heron, Eastern Meadowlark, and an abundance of waterfowl species. It is a wonderful time of year for a duck lover and certainly a great time of year for a goose lover! Greater Snow Geese are typically found in large numbers in extreme eastern ON during this time; their numbers continue to build to astonishing proportions over the following weeks. Rarer geese lurk among the thousands of common geese, providing a classic “Where’s Waldo?” challenge awaiting all those willing to accept it! Ross’s Geese and hybrid Ross’s x Lesser Snow Geese are found among the Greater Snow Geese, and Cackling Geese are traditionally mixed in with Canada Geese.

From early to mid-April, many familiar feathered friends arrive in eastern Ontario. Birds such as Golden-crowned Kinglets, Eastern Phoebe, Winter Wren, Hermit Thrush, Fox Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Brown Creeper, Tree Swallow, Barn Swallow, Northern Flicker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Belted Kingfisher, Rusty Blackbird, Short-eared Owl, Long-eared Owl, American Kestrel, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Osprey, Great Egret, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Horned Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Sandhill Crane, Wilson’s Snipe, Double-crested Cormorant, Trumpeter Swan, Tundra Swan, Bonaparte’s Gull and Little Gull can be seen throughout this period, especially mid  to the third week of April. For a birder, this is a time of warmth; when mild air greets one’s skin, and birdsong warms one’s heart!

Mid to the third week of April marks the arrival of many species of birds. Shorebirds such as Pectoral, Greater Yellowlegs, and Lesser Yellowlegs have arrived, as have the first warblers: Pine Warbler, “Yellow”(hypochrysea) Palm Warbler, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. Pine average the earliest out of the three early season warblers. Purple Finches, with their wonderfully melodious songs, are most-welcomed arrivals at this time! Broad-winged Hawks begin their impressive passage northward at this time, as well. Swamp Sparrows begin to infiltrate the cattail marshes, with many migrants lingering and singing from wet thickets. Virginia Rails, American Bittern, and Sora have arrived (with Sora the latest of the three to return) and may all be heard from the same habitat. Caspian Tern and Little Gull have arrived, and are most commonly encountered along the north shore of Lake ON at this time. Surf Scoter, Black Scoter, Red-throated and Common Loons are on the move, too. Birds such as Ruby-crowned Kinglet, White-throated Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, and Brown Thrasher all arrive from mid-to-late April, as well.

From the third week to the end of April, building numbers of swallow species may be observed, and mixed-species flocks make for a fine and extremely enjoyable study! Look for arrivals of Northern Rough-winged, Cliff, Bank, and Purple Martin at this time. One species, in particular, that is very popular among eastern Ontario birders is the Louisiana Waterthrush. This warbler arrives approximately two to three weeks earlier than its cousin, the Northern Waterthrush. This is also the time when the first of the vireo species, the Blue-headed Vireo, arrives, too! Birders begin to look for Long-billed Dowitcher by the very end of April, with this beautiful and sought-after species most commonly seen during early May here in eastern Ontario.

From early to the third week of May stems the most popular period of spring birding. Numerous warbler species, vireo species such as Yellow-throated and Blue-headed, sparrow species such as Grasshopper and Clay-colored, and thrush species such as Wood Thrush arrive at this time. The last of the herons arrive, with Green Heron (early May) averaging slightly earlier than Least Bittern (mid-May). The last Icterid to arrive, Bobolink, first appears in early May, with numbers swelling by the third week of May. Fan favourites, such as Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Indigo Buntings, Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Bobolinks, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks arrive and are delighting onlookers! Nocturnal birders will be listening for Eastern Whip-poor-will, which generally arrives in numbers by mid-May. Some roads throughout Prince Edward County (Babylon Road, for example) must certainly be seen as some of the best in eastern ON for listening for this species at night.

Late May: The latest migrants through our area are some of the shorebird species, Olive-sided Flycatchers, and the Empidonax flycatchers. Shorebird such as Red Knot, Whimbrel, White-rumped Sandpiper, and Red-necked Phalarope are characteristically late-season, with peak passage typically occurring during the final week of May. Large flocks of Brant typically pass through at this time, as well, with the Ottawa River typically the spot in eastern Ontario for fine views of this species during spring passage.

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Question: Is there a guidebook you can recommend for people who want to study up on species like warblers, vireos and flycatchers?

I recommend two guidebooks, both in the full, North American coverage: the Sibley guidebook and the National Geographic guidebook. In Sibley, the artistry is unparalleled in its accuracy; for example, his treatment of Empidonax flycatchers and Catharus thrushes is, in my opinion, the best out there. His coverage of subspecies and geographical variation is holistic and extremely well-informed, and he provides, through expert artistry, a sample of plumage variation in particularly variable species. For shorebirds and gulls, the National Geographic guide perhaps has the edge. For example, the dowitcher treatment in the National Geographic guide is excellent. Regarding which guide you find to be superior, it is all a matter of personal choice.

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 Question: Do you have any tips for people trying to identify species during migration? Especially give the volume of birds passing through and the fast pace of migration bird-watching.

Take your time and enjoy the rush! Birdwatching during spring migration is exhilarating, so be sure to enjoy it. If you’re new to birding, or only have a few seasons under your belt, consider joining a local nature club and participate in some birding outings. Here, you’ll find kindred spirits and more experienced birders to lean on. Follow the more experienced birders around and see how they bird-watch. You’ll learn a great deal from just being around them. Know that some mornings, there are so many birds, that many must be left unidentified and that this is OK! Even the experts let them go! If you have a camera, take “record shots” of birds, and review your photos afterwards. Consider joining social media bird groups–this is a great way to receive feedback on difficult ID’s and learn from others!