The Birds of Spring

Last Updated on October 9, 2020 by Nancie

Pair of Killdeers Looking for Love at Patuxent Research Refuge
Pair of Killdeers Looking for Love at Patuxent Research Refuge

Yesterday was the first day of spring. Even when temperatures are still cold and winter-like, birds seem to know spring is here. If you pay attention, you can find signs of spring bird activity in your own backyard or at local birding spots. I’ve seen quite a few signs of spring in the past few weeks.

Pair of Wood Ducks
Pair of Wood Ducks on the Lake

Wood Ducks & Hawks

One thing you will notice is that birds seem to be pairing up. Jim and I went birding at Buddy Attick Lake Park in Greenbelt Maryland earlier this month.

The day we were there, two pairs of Wood Ducks were swimming around in a shallow area at the far end of the lake. Each couple stayed together; no wandering off alone for long. If one male got too close to the other’s chosen female, he was quickly sent on his way.

A Red-Shouldered Hawk Nest high in a tree
A Red-Shouldered Hawk Nest

A pair of Red-Shouldered Hawks were working on a nest in the crook of a tall tree just down the path from the ducks.

Male Cardinal eating safflower seed in the backyard
Male Cardinal in the Yard

Cardinals Chasing Each Other

Back in the yard this morning I watched a male Northern Cardinal chasing another around the yard. Two female cardinals watched the chase from the wisteria tangle.

All through the winter we’ve had many pairs of cardinals at once and they’ve appeared to get along very well. Most days we’ve had at least two or three pairs all day and as many as twenty-two (eleven pairs) late in the day and early evening. This is what I call cardinal cocktail hour when they gather at feeders.

I’ve seen all of them share the wisteria tangle together peacefully when something spooks them. There are still many cardinals in the yard so I suspect this was not about territory but was possibly conflict over a potential mate. Spring hormones appear to be kicking in.

Attracting Northern Cardinals

Tree Swallows flying fast over a pond are a blur
The Tree Swallows Were Faster Than a Blur at Merganser Pond

Tree Swallows

Jim and I spent yesterday afternoon (the first day of spring) and the afternoon on the day before birding at Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel. There was sleet and snow with temperatures in the thirties. But even in this blustery weather, birds were in spring mode.

Tree swallows, one of the earliest swallows to arrive back in Maryland each spring, have arrived. They have been very busy soaring and swooping over local ponds to pick off insects near the water surface. They are amazing to watch. (They were too quick for us to get pictures of anything but blue blurs!)

An Eastern Phoebe Hides Among the Reeds & Grasses
Can You See the Eastern Phoebe Hidden Among the Reeds & Grasses?

Phoebes & Flickers

We also saw Eastern Phoebes, just back from their winter break down south, who were also were eating insects. Instead of the Swallow’s constant movement over the water, the phoebe sat on a branch near the water. Then it would fly out to grab a bug and then fly to another branch, to be repeated endlessly. Can you see one in the picture above?

We also saw ten Northern Flickers on the ground and flying around in the rain an sleet in a burnt field in another part of the refuge on the previous afternoon. It was breathtaking to watch them fly across the field with their golden yellow under wings showing themselves with each wing beat.

Pair of Killdeers Mating
Pair of Killdeers Mating


While we were focused on trying to take pictures of the Tree Swallows yesterday, we almost missed the male Killdeer. He was moving around on the the little X-shaped island in the middle of the pond.

As we were watching him, all of a sudden up pops a female Killdeer right next to him with her back to him. He got the message right away, jumping on top of her. Within thirty seconds, they were finished starting the next generation of Killdeers. She wiggled her tail and walked away, never having looked at him once during the entire exchange.

Downy Woodpecker Pair on Tree in Yard
Downy Woodpecker Pair on Tree in Yard

Downy Woodpeckers

Back in the backyard this morning, Downy Woodpeckers are moving around in pairs. Sometimes during the winter you see two at the same time, but mostly they didn’t seem to hang around together during the day. But recently, if you see a female, there is a male somewhere close or vice versa.

Male Goldfinch Molting From Non-Breeding to Breeding Colors
Male Goldfinch Molting From Non-Breeding to Breeding Colors

American Goldfinches

Male American Goldfinches molt in the fall into their duller non-breeding colors. For the past few weeks they have been starting their spring molt back into their bright yellow, black and white breeding colors. Right now, they are looking a bit motley, but within a few weeks they are going to be gorgeous. How could the female goldfinches possibly refuse such beauty?

Attracting American Goldfinches

Amercian Robins Overwinter in Our Area
American Robins Overwinter in Our Area

American Robins

If you asked most people to name a spring bird, they would probably say, “American Robin.” But did you know that in many areas like mine, the robins hang around all year long? In the winter months, they are often hanging around up in trees eating berries. You might not see them hopping around the lawn in the winter as much as in warmer months, but they are still around.

American Robins: Interesting Facts

Dark-Eyed Juncos in the Yard. (Song Sparrow Hiding in the Back.)
Dark-Eyed Juncos in the Yard. (Song Sparrow Hiding Behind the Branch.)

In our area, Dark-Eyed Juncos are winter birds, bringing their bright energy to the yard. They are still hanging out on the ground under the feeders. But within the next month they will be gone, heading north to cooler areas ahead of Maryland’s hot humid months. Most White-Throated Sparrows will leave later in the spring, although some will hang around for the summer in our area. I will miss them both.

Attracting White-Throats, Juncos & Other Sparrows

Pine Warbler on Hanging Platform Feeder
Pine Warbler on Hanging Platform Feeder

Warblers, Ospreys & Eagles

But other birds are even now headed north to summer in our area. Local birders are currently on the look-out for early spring warblers. I was thrilled to have one of Maryland’s first warblers in spring, a Pine Warbler, come to my feeder a few weeks ago.

Birders here in Maryland are also excited to see the area Ospreys returning. The Eagle-Cam at the National Arboretum just south of us in DC has been very popular. Two Bald Eagles hatched this past week.

Flock of Common Grackles are a Sign of Spring
This Time of Year Huge Flocks of Common Grackles Can Overwhelm the Feeders

Grackles & Hummingbirds

We’ve been seeing large flocks of Common Grackles in recent weeks. And the beautiful little Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds should start showing up later next month.

Predicting Birds in Your Area

If you are wondering what birds you might be seeing soon in your area, Cornell Lab of Ornithology has  great online resources. In a post just the other day, I pointed you to their BirdCast site, where they predict bird migration movements for regions of the U.S.

They also offer Bar Charts of bird species throughout the year as part of their eBird site. Here you can get a feel for what months of the year you might expect to see different bird species in your area. To find out what birds people have seen in recent days, you can look at their maps to check out area Hotspots or specific species sightings.

Keep an eye on the birds over the next few months. There is so much happening out there right now and always something new to see!


Learn More About These Birds

All About Birds Website:


Wood Ducks

Northern Cardinal

Tree Swallow

Eastern Phoebe

Northern Flicker

Downy Woodpecker

American Goldfinch

American Robin

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