Spring Migration Primer

Spring migration of birds in the Northern Hemisphere has already started and it is an event that brings many people out into the forests and fields with binoculars and guidebooks in hand. It is safe to say the month of May in Ontario is the most exciting time for birders. Just take a walk in a GTA lakeshore park in May and you will see the interest this phenomenon generates, in fact you can start signing up for the Wild Birds Unlimited bird hikes, see below for details. But why does this annual springtime event take place? Can you plan for better viewing days? Where can you go to see spring bird migration? What do you need to bring with you to make the day a success? Our goal here is to provide you with the resources that will help you enjoy the spectacular event known as the spring migration.

Why do Birds Migrate?

Understanding why spring migration takes place will help you appreciate the importance of the event and if you know someone who is still not sure why you care so much about birds this is a great time to introduce them to this exciting hobby. Two great articles from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology "The Evolution of Bird Migration" and "The Basics of Bird Migration" will help explain the mystery of migration and "Why Do Birds Matter" by Audubon gives many viewpoints as to why we love our birds so much.

What Birds Will You See?

About 350 birds in North America have a seasonal north and south migration and you can watch different families of birds by choosing different locations. Some general guidelines are:

Raptors - hawks, falcons, eagles, vultures - a hawk watch - Beamer Conservation Area

Wading birds - heron, egrets and bittern; Rails and coots; Shore birds - sandpiper, turnstone, willet, whimbrel etc - check ponds, lakes and sewage lagoons, this article, "Birding The Sewage Lagoons" appeared in Ontario Nature
Passerines or perching birds - this is the biggest order of birds that migrate and includes one of spring migrations most watched family migrant the warblers. The order also includes flycatchers, thrush, sparrows, swallows, tanagers, orioles, hummingbirds, waxwings, bobolink etc. These species are found in and around many habitats including forest, field, ponds and lakes. The Wild Birds Unlimited spring bird hikes focus on the passerines.

When to Go Birding in the Spring

As a general rule for the GTA the end of April through the month of May is the time to start. Migration has already started, some early migrants such as the Red-winged Blackbird and Common Grackle arrived a few weeks ago and more recently the Eastern Pheobe has been sighted. But the big push is still to come and a little help predicting the "better" birding days can help you use your available birding time wisely. The Journey North website is a big help. They have a section "Weather & Songbirds" which will help you understand why paying attention to the local and southern weather maps can help you pick the best birding days. Don't miss the "Weather Map Primer" for the basics. And to really add detail to your decisions, BirdCast by Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides live migration maps. But in the end everyday is a great day to bird in the spring and don't let a little rain stop you. Some of the best spring birding happens with a mist or a little bit of rain.

Where to See Spring Migration in the GTA and Little Further

There are many great locations in and around the GTA. Don't forget to check your own backyard. We have had a few interesting unexpected migrants in our backyard. Spring visits have included: Brown Thrasher, Chipping Sparrow (nest in the neighbourhood), Pine Warbler and Indigo Bunting. Not all at once and not in great numbers but still worth a look out the window. To see the full on migration you do need to get out to the local parks. Some of the better known local locations:

Colonel Samuel Smith Park - the Wild Birds Unlimited bird hikes take place here. There is plenty of parking (weekends free) and easy to get to, right at the end of Kipling. Birding Festival - Saturday, May 26.

Humber Bay East - a little further east than Sam Smith and features a great butterfly habitat.

Tommy Thompson Park - or the Leslie Street Spit. A man made urban wilderness on the lake in downtown Toronto that was declared an Important Bird Area in 2000. Lynda and I participate in local bird research as volunteer bird banders at the Tommy Thompson Bird Research Station. Birding Festival - Saturday, May 12.

There are many other local parks that are great for birding, Lambton Woods, Humber Arboretum, High Park and more. A park on the lake or a local park with a creek or river running through it will be worth checking for spring migrants.

Getting out of town and going a little further:

Point Pelee National Park - probably the most famous of the out of town spring migration hot spots. The Pelee birding festival runs May 1 to 20.

Rondeau Provincial Park - this park does not get the international attention Pelee gets but it is an excellent birding location. A visitor centre and daily guided bird hikes.

Presqu'ile Provincial Park - head east out of the GTA and Presqu'ile is a great spring trip for birds.

There are many other excellent spring birding locations such as, MacGregor Point Provincial Park, The Friends of MacGregor Point host a birding festival and a personal favourite Carden Alvar, home to many unique species. Check out the Bird Studies Canada website, Toronto Bird Celebration, for upcoming events in May.

What Do You Need?

It can be as simple as taking a walk to enjoy spring with the sights and sounds of the birds around you and you don't need anything extra. But if you really want to enjoy the birds during migration you should plan to bring the following:

Binoculars - a good pair of binoculars is a must to really enjoy the birds on your walk. You don't have to spend a lot but no matter the price you want to make sure you find them comfortable to use and you know how to use them properly. At Wild Birds Unlimited in Toronto we are all experienced birders and we know what to look for in a good pair of binoculars, we know how to set them up properly and we can offer you expert advice on the right pair for you at many price points. We carry a wide selection of binoculars from Vortex, Celestron, Vanguard, Opticron, Kowa, Zeiss and Swarovski. Come in and see us and we can help you choose the best pair. Visit "Binoculars and Scopes" on our website for more details.

Guide Book - Even the most experienced birders take along some form of guidebook to help ID the tricky ones. When you are just beginning it really makes it fun when you can see a bird (with your new binoculars) and then figure out the ID by the birds field markings. Guide books vary from regional (we are part of the eastern region) to North American, from photographs to drawings. Currently the two most popular are the Sibley Guide and National Geographic both based on drawings, if you prefer photographs the Stokes guides are popular. The best way to pick a bird guide is to come in take a look at them and decide which format you prefer.

Birding Apps - if you have a smart phone there are excellent apps. My favourite general birding apps are the Sibley Guide and iBird Pro, full featured mobile birding guides with sound. There are many others available.

Join a Guided Hike

Joining an organized hike can be a lot of fun for the beginner to the experienced birder. Multiple eyes help find more birds, beginners can gain a lot of knowledge on bird finding technique and bird ID and the experienced birder can pick up some new ideas and have some fun debating a tricky ID. Use this link for our bird hike schedule and details. Our hike leaders, Kyle and Barb, make the hikes fun, informative and comfortable for birders of all experience levels.

Happy Birding!