Sparrows, kingfishers and killdeer among this spring's early birds

·4 min read
A song sparrow perched on a snowy branch. Memramcook birder Alain Clavette heard one singing outside his home on Sunday. (Submitted by Alain Clavette - image credit)
A song sparrow perched on a snowy branch. Memramcook birder Alain Clavette heard one singing outside his home on Sunday. (Submitted by Alain Clavette - image credit)

New Brunswick birders are reporting a number of migratory species have arrived in the province one to two weeks ahead of schedule.

Jim Wilson of Quispamsis said he spotted juncos, song sparrows, robins and several other species during a field day last week in Fundy Park, Salisbury, Sussex and Hampton.

He was especially surprised to see kingfishers, which "normally don't come back until everything is melted out completely."

Typically, the first "pulse" of migratory birds arrive between March 15 and 20, said Wilson.

This year, he said, it was March 11.

The first song sparrows came a week to 10 days earlier than usual, Wilson said.

At this point they are "starting to really settle in," he said.

Killdeer make their nests on the ground, sometimes in sports fields or parks, which have to be closed to protect them.
Killdeer make their nests on the ground, sometimes in sports fields or parks, which have to be closed to protect them.(Submitted by Alain Clavette)

Birder Alain Clavette of Memramcook said he couldn't believe it when he heard a killdeer last week, even though there was still snow on the ground, where they build their nests.

He also noticed a woodcock, which are known for evening display flights that begin on the ground.

It was using the only tiny patch of exposed grass in his yard where the snow had melted.

An American woodcock photographed in Norton on April 9, 2014.
An American woodcock photographed in Norton on April 9, 2014.(Submitted by Jim Wilson)

Black scoter ducks also arrived early.

Clavette is helping with a research project on them this spring.

He was supposed to have monitoring equipment installed by April 1, in plenty of time for their usual arrival.

But he had to scramble to get the recorders on his rooftop after hearing the ducks' plaintiff whistling cries overhead on the last few nights of March.

Red winged blackbirds and grackles are also here, Clavette noted.

A fox sparrow spotted Mar. 28, 2016, at Point Lepreau.
A fox sparrow spotted Mar. 28, 2016, at Point Lepreau.(Submitted by Jim Wilson)

Clavette and Wilson said the earlier spring arrivals continue a trend they've noticed in the last decade or so.

"I think there's no question that our climate is changing," said Wilson.

Wilson has been keeping track of spring arrivals for about 50 years now.

"That seemed to be one of the shortest winters we've had in a long time," he said.

"We didn't really have much of a real winter until, gosh, the month of February this year. And by, you know, the 10th, 11th of March, things started to suddenly warm up again."

"It's kind of scary," said Wilson.

Wilson said he likes to help the birds out when they arrive early and there's still snow on the ground or harsh weather returns.

"Sometimes we put out berries if we have any in the freezer or pieces of apple for robins, a little bit of birdseed on the ground for some of the song sparrows and the juncos and a few of the other birds that have come back."

Nevertheless, he added, most birds are well equipped and adapted to deal with late cold snaps or snowstorms.

A dark eyed junco against a snowy backdrop.
A dark eyed junco against a snowy backdrop.(Submitted by Alain Clavette)

"They've evolved over time to cope with that."

Robins, for example, can eat fruit or pick at things on the snow, or find patches of exposed ground to hunt for worms. And sparrows can eat seeds on top of the snow.

On the other hand, said Clavette, tree swallows can lose their broods because of cold spells.

He's hurrying to install nesting boxes that have been donated for University of Moncton ornithology students before the tree swallows arrive.

They usually get to southeastern New Brunswick around April 18-20, said Clavette.

But at the rate things are going, he wouldn't be surprised to see them this week.

Clavette says tree swallow boxes like this one will be going up soon at the University of Moncton campus.
Clavette says tree swallow boxes like this one will be going up soon at the University of Moncton campus.(Submitted by Alain Clavette)

Wilson said hummingbirds could arrive early, as well. His earliest hummingbird sightings have been around May 2-3.

Web sites tracking this year's migration show them approaching New England now.

"Hummingbirds just gradually work their way during the day and roost at night, following the flowers," said Wilson.

"So, if we have decent weather during the month of April, we probably will have flowers out enough to bring them even earlier."