Spring is most commonly marked by warming weather, budding trees, emerging flowers, and of course, the chorus of birds! Birds that have braved the cold winter begin to moult into their summer plumage and stake out territories, those that have migrated back from down south (perhaps the smarter of the two...) also begin preparations to start their families! Not everyone returns at the same time however, so join me as we go through the spring migration and discover when we can look forward to seeing our favorite birds!
Red wing blackbirds
If you thought you heard the sounds of the seaside, despite snow covering the ground... you weren't hearing things! Ring-billed gulls return as early as February, though some stay year round. You may wonder how their large, paddle-like exposed feet don't freeze in snow and ice (along with overwintering duck and geese too, for that matter!). Water fowl share a unique adaptation, the blood vessels in their legs and feet run counter-current to each other. Thus as freezing cold blood circulates through the foot, it passes by warmer blood vessels coming from the body and prevents it from getting too cold!
Learn more about Ring-billed gulls here.
In mid February male Red Wing blackbirds return in massive flocks, and females, a few weeks later. Perching high on a blade of bulrush or grass, male Red-wing blackbirds puff out their feathers to display their bright red wing patch (called an epaulet) and sing boldly to deter other males from territory. Most males return to last year’s territory, only changing if they are forced out or sometimes if they were unsuccessful in getting a mate the year before. Thankfully battles aren't particularly violent, however they are noisy! Singing, posturing and showing off their colours, typically the male with the largest and brightest red epaulets will win the confrontation.
The reason high quality territories are
sought after is because females choose mates by the quality of the territory. Criteria include: lots of long grasses/cattails for nests, plenty of insects and seeds as well a water source for drinking and bathing.
Learn more about Red-winged blackbirds here.
Red shouldered Hawk
*Grackles are a invasive species from Europe.*
Along with House Sparrows they compete and oust native songbirds for nesting sites and access to food.
Killdeer are one of my favorite birds. They have a unique easy to identify call (kill-deer, kill-deer), and are devoted parents! Being ground nesters, their eggs are at constant risk from a large number of predators such s snakes, mice, foxes etc. To combat this, not only do they have carefully camouflaged eggs (patterned to match the gravel nests are dug in), the parents pretend to be injured! If a predator approaches, one or both parents will approach the predator, splay one wing (exposing the rusty red/orange at the base of their tail), and pretend to have a broken wing! Once they’ve led the predator far enough away they take off and circle for a while before returning to their nest.
Learn more about Killdeer here.
The smallest (and arguably cutest) of Ontario's owls, male Saw-whet owls work hard to impress females. During courtship they often carry a vole or mouse, circling the female 15 -20 times while calling, before landing and shyly shuffling closer dropping his gift. If the female is interested, she'll eat the presented vole/mouse and take off. The male then follows and after a brief flight they land and mate. Saw-whets nest in dead trees in tree cavities, and will sometimes use specially made nest boxes if available!
Learn more about Northern Saw-whet owls here.
Red-throated and Common Loons
Yellow Belly Sapsucker
Short & Long eared Owl
Along the rivers in Toronto you may spy the elusive and aerobatic Kingfisher! These stunning blue-grey birds are renowned for their fishing prowess. Either scouting from a perch or hovering over the water, Kingfishers hunt for small fish, crayfish, insects and arthropods hiding beneath the water, when prey is spotted they dive straight into the water, headfirst, snatching up their prey with their long beak. When it comes to breeding season, not only are females more colourful than males (and help to establish and defend territories), kingfisher nests are dug into bare stream banks! Both males and females dig a 1-8ft long, upwards sloping tunnel that ends in a small chamber where eggs are laid. Once chicks hatch, both parents take turns feeding the chicks. Interestingly, it is thought that chicks have more acidic stomachs than their parents, as fish bones, scales and insect exoskeletons are eaten whole and digested, however adult kingfishers regurgitate these (mostly digestible) items in pellets.
Learn more about Belted Kingfishers here.
With stunning black and white plumage and bright red eyes, it's no wonder Common Loons are featured on $1 coins (loonies), and are the official bird of Ontario! White most well known for their lonely cries across cold northern lakes, Common Loons have 4 distinct calls they make to communicate with one another. The 'wail', as researchers have termed it, is the long, haunting call made between partners on a lake to communicate their location to each other. The 'yodel', is primarily used by males (and on rare occasions females) as a territorial cry to warn off other males from their lake. The 'tremolo' is the wavering call used to warn of nearby danger, or to announce their presence on a lake. Lastly the 'hoot', is a quiet sound used to communicate with chicks or nearby partners.
Learn more about Common Loons here.
Listen to loon songs and calls here.
1 & 2 are yodels (males warning off other loons)
Call 3 is the wail (partners calling to one another)
Call 4 & 5 are tremolos (warning of danger or announcing arrival)
Calls 6 & 7 are quiet hoots (calling to chicks or to one another)
Black billed Cuckoo
Yellow bill cuckoo
Olive Fly catchers
Orioles are one of Ontario’s most vibrant and brightly coloured birds! Males are bright orange, with bold black markings, while females tend to be light orange/brown. Not only are their colours uncommon, but Orioles are Ontario’s only basket nesting birds! Females gather long grasses and weave a basket-shaped hanging nest in which she lays and incubates blue coloured eggs. Orioles are primarily nectar and fruit eaters, they can often be attracted to your backyard with fruit feeders (like the majority of nesting birds however, Orioles rely on high-fat and high-protein insects such as caterpillars, to feed their young).
Learn more about Baltimore Orioles here.
Cuckoos have a rather bad rap, known for sneaking into the the nests of other birds and leaving their eggs for another mother to care for. While Black-billed cuckoos still do this on occasion, this species more often builds their own nest and cares for their young. Black-billed cuckoos are elusive and rarely seen, however they are one of the best insect ‘pest’ eaters as they LOVE hairy caterpillars such as tent caterpillars! To deal with the sticky, hairy and irritating spines, cuckoos will periodically shed their entire stomach lining and regurgitate it (not unlike an owl pellet)!
Learn more about Black-billed Cuckoo here.
For more reading, the Ontario Parks blog has some great blogs on spring migration as well as birding in general!
Ontario is home to over 500 different species of bird! I hope you enjoyed learning about a few of our feathered friends, if you would like to learn more, follow SUMAC North on Facebook and Instagram, or join me on a hike!