Spring Birds of Indiana (March, April, May)
Spring in Indiana, as everywhere in the Midwest, is unpredictable. There are often warm, sunny days in February or even January that make us think of spring. But such days are nearly always followed by more days of freezing temperature, ice, and often snow. However, by the end of February, in spite of vicissitudes of weather, buds on trees are swelling and the first bird migrants have arrived.
The outline of spring included in this chapter generally applies to the central part of Indiana. In the southern part, along the Ohio River, events may be a month earlier while in the north, along the shore of Lake Michigan, they may be nearly a month later.
Robins are spotted either toward the end of February or early in March. Their presence is often reported in newspaper stories announcing the beginning of spring. Flocks of male red-winged blackbirds (perhaps better harbingers of spring’s arrival) drift over the countryside during the day and roost at night in cattails of marshes or around the shores of lakes. Meadowlarks and bluebirds return and begin singing and courting.
The first robin in the yard or bluebird along a country road or flock of red-winged blackbirds is a signal to start visiting lakes and marshes looking for waterfowl and other waterbirds. Wood ducks and mallards, blue-winged teal, and a few other species and, of course, Canada geese nest in Indiana but many more pass through to more northern nesting grounds. March is the time when leaves begin to open and the bird watcher in Indiana who wants a big annual list goes out looking for the ducks and geese and early shorebirds.
March is also a time to visit woods, to see early wildflowers as well as birds. Bloodroot and spring beauty and hepatica and many more flowers bloom while sunlight still shines through leafless branches and warms the ground. Resident woodland birds, blue jays and downy and hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers, chickadees and tufted titmice and white-breasted nuthatches are selecting territories and even beginning to nest.
This is when sandhill cranes visit the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwest Indiana. Never as numerous there in spring as on peak days in the fall, the fortunate bird watcher may still see several thousand of these spectacular birds at dusk as they gather to roost at J-P.
March, the windy month, is the time to check the direction of the wind and go to the fields on clear days when the wind is from the south, and then to watch the sky. On a warm day when thermals are rising there may be hawks—red-tailed and broad-winged hawks, northern harriers, merlins, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks— flying over. There may also be flocks of ducks, geese, and sandhill cranes. With the sandhills, there is an ever-greater chance of seeing a whooping crane, because those birds that followed the ultralite aircraft south to the Chassohowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida in fall return to the Necedah Refuge in Wisconsin.
Indiana has no one birding hotspot to compare with Whitefish Point on the shore of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania or Duluth, Minnesota. But the shore of Lake Michigan at the northwest corner of the state and the area near it can provide a long list of waterfowl and other waterbirds, shorebirds, gulls, raptors, and songbirds in March or April or even early in May,
Most of the birds that visit Indiana only in winter leave in March. Dark-eyed juncos and tree sparrows disappear from the bird feeders, headed north to breed. Pine siskins, redpolls, and evening grosbeaks leave those fortunate birders who have enjoyed these erratic, unpredictable visitors. The flocks of Lapland longspurs and snow buntings that have occasionally been found along country roads are gone and horned larks have begun nesting.
Dandelions begin to bloom in March and mourning doves and robins and bluebirds begin to nest. Brown thrashers return and sing to announce their territories. Tree swallows appear toward the end of the month followed by purple martins.
April is a month of constant change and activity among plants and birds. Trees are blossoming, their leaves opening. Many red-winged blackbirds have deserted the flocks and divided marshes and fields into territories, each singing and flashing its epaulets in its chosen kingdom. The females return. Most other resident summer birds are back. Baltimore orioles, catbirds, song sparrows, chipping sparrows, indigo buntings, killdeer, and many more are announcing territories, choosing mates, nesting.
Barn swallows return and circle over fields and lakes and marshes during the day, swooping in and out of barns and other buildings that have open windows or doors, already prospecting for satisfactory places to plaster up their nests of mud. Bank swallows and rough-winged swallows join the barn swallows in what seems like nearly non-stop daily aerial patrolling for insects.
The end of April or the first of May is the time when Hoosier bird watchers go for their big days. Then they hope to see lingering waterfowl and shorebirds on and around lakes and marshes, warblers and other songbirds in the woods, and grassland birds in the fields. On a day early in May it is possible to find 30 species of warbler, half a dozen species of vireo, and a dozen birds named sparrow.
As May progresses the migrants that pass through or over Indiana disappear. Only summer resident birds remain and most of them are busy with families. There are goslings and ducklings on lakes and ponds, young killdeer in fields. Fledgling, spot-breasted robins follow their parents on lawns in yards and parks, begging noisily. By the end of May the leaves on the trees are all open and mosquitoes are almost unbearable around wetlands at dusk and dawn. Summer has arrived.