Birding Month-By-Month in the Grand Cities Area
JANUARY: Even January, the coldest month of the year, has something to offer. In some years, it is January's blizzards and arctic cold fronts that finally drive redpolls out of the open country and to the feeders. There often seems to be an influx of Pine Siskins during the month. Occasionally a House Finch may be heard in full song on sunny days. A drive through the countryside may provide views of Gray Partridge, a Snowy Owl, or Snow Buntings. In winters with a high vole population, one may see Rough-legged Hawks and Short-eared Owls.
FEBRUARY: By driving country roads, watching the road ahead, the winter birder can see that spring migration has begun with the return of Horned Larks. By the end of the month, they can be fairly common as they gather along roadsides to feed, particularly after snowstorms. Pine Siskins coming to feeding stations become increasingly vocal in preparation for their early nesting season. In shelterbelts and tree claims in the country and along the wooded streams, Great Horned Owls take over hawk nests from the previous year and are sometimes nesting by the third week of the month. Local pairs of Bald Eagles will reclaim their nesting territory if they indeed left at all. Resident chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers are increasingly heard as they establish pair-bonds and establish territories.
MARCH: This can be a frustrating month for the birder anxious to leave winter behind as there are many false starts to spring migration. Sometime during the month a flow of warm air from the south together with sunny skies will bring in the first wave of migrants. The first wave will be most noticeable when winds are out of the southeast, the temperatures suddenly rise 20 degrees or so, and rapid melting of the snowpack begins. Then is the time to look for Red-tailed Hawks, Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers, and American Kestrels; Killdeer; Ring-billed and Herring Gulls; Canada Geese, Tundra Swans, Common Goldeneyes, Mallards, Pintails, and Common Mergansers; Robins and the occasional Mountain Bluebird or Eastern Bluebird; Western Meadowlarks; Dark-eyed Juncos, American Tree Sparrows and Song Sparrows; and Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds. In a very early spring, all species of ducks expected here may appear before the end of the month. But winter can also refuse to relent in March. Often there is a stretch of several days when northerly winds and cold temperatures prevent any new birds from coming.
APRIL: Migration is extremely heavy during this and the coming month. Between March 20 and June 1, approximately 200 species appear in the area, an average of three new species per day. By mid-April, if not earlier, the arrivals are on an almost clock-like schedule with many of them appearing in a predictable five day span unless poor migrating conditions keep them from moving northward. The species that arrive with the first wave in March will be well represented for a couple of weeks in early April and then become scarce. The first warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, often appears as early as April 10 and this is the first species to arrive which depends primarily on insects. Purple Martins, which are entirely dependent on insects, usually arrive April 20-25. April and early May is the best time of the year to maintain a backyard feeder if the goal is to see and enjoy birds. A variety of finches and sparrows in their best plumage and often singing will stay for a few days to regain body fat before resuming migration. Fox Sparrows appear early in the month to be followed by Chipping, White-throated, and White-crowned Sparrows before the end of the month. In early April, the last of the winter visitors, redpolls, Snowy Owls, and Snow Buntings, leave the area.
MAY: Passerines including thrushes, vireos, warblers, and sparrows, dominate the migrating species. By the end of the first week of May, those who maintain backyard feeders stock oranges, grapes, grape jelly, and sugar water to attract orioles, grosbeaks and hummingbirds. Local wetlands teem with shorebirds, but most of the migrant waterfowl and raptors have reached their breeding territories. Local nesting species on the prairies, marshes, and woodlands, waste no time in initiating courtship and nesting once they arrive. So May is a month when there is considerable overlap of migration and nesting. By early or mid May, depending on the progression of the season, the trees bloom and leaves appear. The timing of vireo and warbler migration peaks at this time and in an early spring looking for the highly colorful warblers and the drab vireos amongst the leaves in the treetops can give the birder a bad case of "warblers neck". The latest arriving species begin to appear around May 20-25. These species include Common Nighthawk, Eastern Wood Pewee, and Orchard Oriole.
JUNE: The last of the migrant thrushes and warblers move through during the first week of June while northbound shorebirds may be around for still another week. Most of the nesting species are in some phase of the nesting cycle and the level of song remains high as the males vigorously defend their territories. For other species, however, the post-breeding season has already begun. For example, the drakes of most species of ducks take no part in incubation or caring for the young and large flocks of these birds will already be forming and starting to move around. And just as the last of the shorebirds, notably White-rumped Sandpipers, pass going north, the first southbound individuals of other shorebird species (e.g., both species of yellowlegs) begin to appear around June 20. By the end of the month, favorable shorebird habitat may have dozens of southbound migrants.
JULY: Certainly for most species, the nesting cycle will have been completed by the end of the month. The level of singing activity steadily declines although a number of species such as the Robin and Barn Swallow will raise a second or even a third brood. It seems that for many species of passerines, the parents take their young away from the immediate nesting territory as soon as possible after fledging, but will continue to feed them for several days. The American Goldfinch, perhaps our latest nesting passerine, will finally begin nesting near the end of the month. Shorebird migration is heavy throughout the month, and the first migrating passerines, usually Tennessee Warblers, arrive around July 10.
AUGUST: Most birds are now very quiet and the adults of many species undergo a post-breeding molt. Some species, especially those in the swallow family, gather into large staging flocks which feed heavily in preparation for migration. Although no longer the case, a staging flock of Purple Martins numbering more than 5000 birds once gathered near dusk each day in August to roost somewhere within the Grand Cities. Ducks are in eclipse plumage and distinguishing the species is a challenge. Warbler and vireo migration reaches a peak before the end of the month. Many species that breed here are present for only about three months of the year. Examples include Upland Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, Orchard Oriole, and Indigo Bunting, which gradually disappear and become hard to find by the end of the month. August is a great time to attract hummingbirds with backyard flowers and hummingbird feeders.
SEPTEMBER: The first Snow Geese will be among the large numbers of waterfowl arriving in early September at Kellys Slough and Lake Ardoch National Wildlife Refuges. They soon are joined by Tundra Swans. Except for Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers, warbler migration is largely over by the middle of the month, just as the migration of juncos and the "crowned sparrows" begins. A fall feeding program begun before mid-September should bring in many of these birds. Nearly all of the insect-eating birds including Common Nighthawks, Chimney Swifts, Purple Martins, swallows, flycatchers, and warblers, will leave before the end of the month. The drakes of a number of species of ducks begin to reacquire their breeding plumage.
OCTOBER: Robert Janssen, author of Birds in Minnesota, considers this to be the most interesting month of all in terms of finding unusual birds. Examples include any of the three species of scoters, Long-tailed Duck, Harlequin Duck, Pacific Loon, Sabine's Gull, and Glaucous Gull. Most of these birds leave the arctic and head toward the seacoast, but a few straggle through the northern plains and can be found with a lot of looking. This is also a good month to look for still other mis-directed migrants, especially birds that are heading north rather than south. Sparrow migration peaks early in the month. Waterfowl, especially geese, can be found numbering in the tens of thousands, especially in the pothole country such as the area around Devils Lake. The end of the month sometimes gives a hint as to which species will be around for the winter season. It is the time to look for the first Snow Buntings, Snowy Owls, Common and Hoary Redpolls, and Pine Grosbeaks. Late fall is also a time when a few species sing for a time, one of the more notable being the Western Meadowlark.
NOVEMBER: All but the bigger lakes and reservoirs usually freeze over early in the month. Until that happens, they are teaming with ducks and geese. The morning following the first hard freeze is quiet as the waterfowl have vanished overnight. Swans sometimes stay around a little longer and can be seen resting on the ice. It is a good month to see migrating Rough-legged Hawk, and the Harlan's form of Red-tailed Hawk. This is also the best time to see Bald Eagles in fall as they seem to linger on northern lakes until the last possible moment. In a good year for finches, numbers will continue to increase in November. Bohemians Waxwings sometimes appear in good numbers. By the middle of the month, passerine migration is essentially over and when northern finches are absent, late November can seem more birdless than any other time of the year.
DECEMBER: Grand Forks is one of many localities around the country that conducts a Christmas Bird Count. In recent years the number of species seen in the 15-mile diameter circle centered one mile east of the entrance to the airport has been in the 45-55 range. A really high count occurs when northern finches are present along with a good variety of the "semihardy" species plus some species that missed the south-bound bus. Fall migration continues as a trickle well into December, the last species to leave usually being Brown Creeper and Golden-crowned Kinglet although either may winter on occasion.
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