by Annie Lindsay
On spring mornings that I’m not banding birds, I like to sit on my back porch with my binoculars, watching for movement at the edge of the woods behind my house, keeping my ears tuned in to songs and short, usually high-pitched, chip and contact notes. On mornings following a night of heavy migration, small flocks of mixed species often move through the trees, feeding on insects as they refuel for the next stage of migration. These flocks often have warblers, thrushes, tanagers, grosbeaks, or sparrows foraging in their own niches: warblers tend to be in mid- to high-canopy, whereas thrushes stay low and sparrows are often on the ground.
Occasionally, I’ll stand outside in a quiet, dark spot just before dawn and listen for the soft, high-pitched flight calls of migrants settling into habitat after a night of flying. I’m an avid birder: I love to see both new and familiar birds, and watch the species that use my yard and favorite birding patches.
Last year, many people discovered birding. We spent much of the spring working from home, perhaps gazing out of our windows at our bird feeders or backyard plants, and for the first time noticed birds that we didn’t know existed or didn’t realize visited our yards. The opportunity to learn about the diversity of birds in our area and develop a passion for watching them was a bright spot (both literally and metaphorically!) in an otherwise difficult year. The seasons progressed, and now we once again eagerly anticipate the arrival of beautiful and colorful migratory songbirds. Let’s explore common spring backyard birds in southwest Pennsylvania and how to attract and find them!
Each year, as the temperature warms, migratory birds move through our area in search of their breeding grounds. Although arrival timing is a bit variable between years due to annual variation in weather patterns, there is a predictable progression of species, so we know what to expect next relative to what we’ve already seen. The first, and often most conspicuous, to arrive are Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles, usually in late February. They are followed by “peenting” American Woodcocks in early March, Eastern Phoebes in mid-March, and kinglets peaking in late-March. Keep your eyes to the sky any time you’re outdoors during these early spring weeks to watch for migrating waterfowl and raptors.
By April, more songbirds, including vireos, swallows, early warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (a tiny bird with a wheezy song), House Wren, and the fan favorite, Gray Catbird make their way through our region, many remaining here to set up their breeding territories. In May, the migration floodgates open and some of the most brilliantly plumaged birds we’ve ever seen, like Baltimore Oriole, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting, and several warblers, may visit our yards and feeders, along with the less flashy, but equally beautiful, sparrows and thrushes.
Orioles readily come to feeders with orange halves, especially during migration, and seed-eating species like grosbeaks, buntings, and sparrows often visit feeders with sunflower or other seeds (or, in the case of many sparrows, clean up seeds on the ground under feeders!). Hummingbirds come to feeders with nectar (four parts water to one part white sugar, please avoid using food dyes or commercial nectar that has been dyed red). Most of these species are insectivorous, especially during spring migration, and are often observed picking things like caterpillars, midges, and spiders from foliage.
In addition to the migratory species that we see and hear in the spring, many birds that are year-round residents also frequent our yards. Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, Carolina Wrens, five species of woodpeckers (Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, Pileated, and Northern Flicker, plus two more if we’re lucky – Red-headed Woodpecker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker), and the colorful American Goldfinch, Northern Cardinal, and Eastern Bluebird mix with migratory birds. Most of these species visit bird feeders filled with sunflower or safflower seeds (chickadees, titmice, cardinals, nuthatches, woodpeckers), suet (woodpeckers, wrens), nyjer seed (finches), and mealworms (bluebirds, titmice, chickadees).
One of the best ways to attract birds to your yard is planting native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and other plants. Native plants are hosts for a high diversity of insects, especially during their larval stages, and provide nutritious seeds and fruit, all of which are important food resources for birds. These plants are also valuable as cover for safety and nest sites. Although often overlooked, a source of clean, fresh water, as simple as a bird bath or as complex as a pond with a bubbler or waterfall, can make your yard especially attractive to birds. And one of the easiest and most popular ways to attract birds for close viewing is providing bird food in clean, safe feeders. I recommend visiting your local bird feeding specialty store.
You may see all of the birds mentioned in this blog in your yard, but this is a non-exhaustive list and you may even see something unexpected. Visiting a local birding hotspot with complex and diverse habitats is certainly worth the effort as well. Birding these spots several times throughout the season will reward you with an impressive list and will boost your knowledge of natural history. The combination of a good pair of binoculars and a field guide with identification tips, range maps, and text about habitat is one of the best ways to maximize your birding, whether at home or in the field.
Please visit CMNH’s blog page to find bird ID tips and field guide recommendations.
The Audubon Society put together a great guide to the best binoculars at various price ranges.
You can put your bird observation skills to good use (or further develop those skills) by participating this spring in a broad survey of local wildlife and plants called the City Nature Challenge. The observation portion of this event is April 30 – May 3.
Annie Lindsay is the Bird Banding Program Manager at Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Powdermill Nature Reserve. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.
The Christmas Bird Count During an Irruption Year
Bird Banding with a Crew of One
Carnegie Museum of Natural History Blog Citation InformationBlog author: Lindsay, Annie
Publication date: March 24, 2021