You may not think of January as a great time for seeking birds, but deep snow, ice, and crisp cold is no match for wintering finches, owls, waterfowl, and songbirds. Nature center’s bird feeding stations are alive with chickadees, cardinals, sparrows, titmice, nuthatches and the infamous "Snowbird" - the dark-eyed junco. American goldfinches and pine siskins may be joined by the rare common redpoll at thistle feeders. Hemlocks, pines and spruces - provide food and shelter for purple and house finches that may be joined by very rare evening grosbeaks or red crossbills. Roving flocks of American robins and cedar waxwings brighten gray skies as they descend upon fruiting trees and shrubs, gobbling up calories for long, cold nights. Red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks hunt fields and forest edges and sleek cooper's hawks are energetically on the hunt for songbirds. Great horned owls are very active in January, searching for a mate, building a nest, or incubating eggs. Listen for their deep, booming "HOO HOO-HOO HOO HOO" calls at night.
Daylight lengthens and the deep silence of winter is broken by the mournful call of mourning doves as the first spring bird songs now begin. Later in the month bird songs become quite noticeable as chickadees, tufted titmouse and cardinals join in the chorus. Great horned owls have been courting and establishing nest sites. Large tree cavities provide excellent shelter during cold months, but large stick nests of herons, hawks and crows will suffice. Incubation is about a month and young will hatch when temperatures are warmer. Toward the end of the month you will hear “okaleee”, as male red-winged blackbirds return to cattail stands to establish territories. Females may not arrive for some time depending on weather and will eventually begin to weave nests from last years’ dried out cattail fronds.
Still within winter’s grip, March heralds the beginning of spring with increasingly warmer days, signaling birds to stir and become more active. Late in the month, the first spring migrants, including hardy eastern phoebes, fox sparrows, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers, begin to appear in greater numbers. Male red-winged blackbirds (the ultimate harbinger of spring) have returned to their territories along roadsides, marshes and wetlands proclaiming their arrival with puffed wings and a loud rattling “Coco-REEE.” High above the forest floor within large oaks, maples, and pines red-shouldered, Cooper’s and red-tailed hawks are rearing their young. Great horned and barred owl owlets are growing and becoming restless, keeping parent owls busy catching mice, voles, skunks, squirrels, birds, and rabbits. Waterfowl begin major movements and from the high bluffs of Huntington Reservation, one can witness fantastic numbers and diversity of diving ducks, grebes and loons as they prepare to push north towards nesting grounds.
Riding nighttime southerly winds the first waves of warblers, sparrows and thrushes arrive on the north coast stopping in Ohio only to refuel before continuing their journey north. Some champion’s of migration can be found in April as shorebirds that have spent our winter as far south as Argentina, briefly stop at local mudflats to refuel on invertebrates before continuing to the tundra of Canada. Others like orioles, grosbeaks and tanagers return to local Ohio to begin their nesting cycle while common grackles, mourning doves and American woodcocks already having hatched and fledged one brood by the end of the month.
Songbird migration peaks the first two weeks of May as wave after wave of birds arrive in Cleveland Metroparks. Some like the blackburnian warbler began their journey in South America only stopping briefly to refuel then continuing to boreal forests farther north. Others, like the wood thrush arrive from forest of Panama to stake out a territory in local forests filling the morning and evening with their flute like song. Migrating at night nocturnal flights of these and other bird migrants can be so impressive that they can be seen on weather radar. While birds continue to arrive this month others like bluebirds have already fledged their first brood.
The rush of spring migration tapers off with north-bound warblers, vireos and thrushes moving on warm nighttime winds. Within the rich beech-maple forests flute- like calls of Wood Thrushes and Veeries echo and Hooded Warblers, Red-eyed Vireos, Ovenbirds, Scarlet Tanagers are setting up territories and beginning nest building. Sycamore-laden riversides are alive with Cerulean and Yellow-throated Warblers, Baltimore Orioles, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.
While most resident breeding birds have already fledged young, the brilliant black-and-gold American goldfinches and ornately colored cedar waxwings only now begin to gather nesting material. Birdsongs still dominate the sounds of early morning in the deep woodlands, but as the month’s end draws near, warblers, tanagers, thrushes and other resident species go quiet as the nesting season winds down. Young red-shouldered and broad-winged hawks are now patrolling the woodland edges. The very first of the year’s migrant shorebirds are heading southward, and blackbirds again begin to build in flocks.
Late summer marks the end of breeding season for most birds, except for cedar waxwings and American goldfinches, which are hard at work preparing nests and raising young in the heat of the year. The dawn chorus of songbirds such as warblers, flycatchers, tanagers and grosbeaks has quieted, except for red-eyed vireos singing high in the canopy of lush forests. While it seems early, fall migration is already underway, as blackbird flocks gather in fields and shorebirds return to wetlands and marshes as they move south from the Arctic tundra.
This is one of the most exciting months for birding in Cleveland Metroparks as fall migration swings into full gear. Woodlands once again burst into motion as scores of warblers, vireos, flycatchers, tanagers and thrushes work their way south. Waves of swallows and hawks now push through on north winds and towards the end of the month, sparrows invade grasslands and wetlands. The muddy edges of wetlands offer stopping grounds for shorebirds and waders feasting on abundant invertebrates found in the mud. A visit to Huntington Reservation during strong northern gales offers a chance to observe the initial large movements of waterfowl, terns, gulls, and on a red-letter day, a jaeger. September’s migration mayhem can offer birders the chance to see over 100 species in one day.
Forest edges are great places to search for poison ivy vines with their white berries; packed with energy. These are consumed by migrants and local birds alike with a vengeance. Look for chickadees, titmice, cardinals, woodpeckers and migrating yellow-rumped warblers feasting on the fruits that quickly disappear. The marshes are filled with activity as waterfowl migration is well underway. Wood duck numbers increase in the oxbows of North Chagrin Reservation where it is easy to see over one hundred in just one wetland feasting on the abundant seeds and nuts that have fallen into the shallow waters.
This month is prime time to seek bird species as cold north winds strip the landscape of the last brilliantly-colored fall leaves. For birders, this is high-time for rarities on the lakefront as strong cold fronts can create awe-inspiring, major movements of waterfowl, gulls, grebes and loons on the shores of Lake Erie. Intrepid birders willing to visit Huntington Reservation can be dazzled by daily movements of thousands to nearly half-a-million red-breasted mergansers joined by throngs of lesser scaup, common loons, and horned grebes. Lake watching offers the chance to see rare jaegers, waterfowl, and passerines blown in by strong winds. Woodlands have now quieted and roving bands of chickadees, titmice, and brown creepers are joined by red-breasted nuthatches. Rare northern finches, such as white-winged crossbill or evening grosbeak, may visit your feeders or join building flocks of common finches at birch, hemlock, and spruce stands.
December is typically thought of as a quiet month for bird diversity and action, but surprises await those who go afield. Dark-eyed juncos ("snowbirds") and American tree sparrows join ranks with northern cardinals, white-throated sparrows and other ground-feeding species. Chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and brown creepers form highly active feeding flocks that wander through woodlands in search of insect and berry prey, sometimes joined by uncommon pine and yellow-rumped warblers and the spritely red-breasted nuthatch. American goldfinches have molted their brilliant yellow garb for more subdued golden-browns, but still bring a splash of color to nature centers' bird feeding stations. Resident eastern screech, barred and great horned owls become more active and vocal as their winter breeding season will begin at the end of the month. A quiet night's hike can offer the chance to hear the deep hooting of the great horned owl, "Who-cooks-for-you?" of the barred owl, or the eerie trilling and whinny of the hand-sized eastern screech owl. Along the lakefront, thousands of red-breasted mergansers, scaup, scoters, and other waterfowl are using Lake Erie as a migration portal to the east coast. From the high bluffs of Huntington Reservation, one can view upwards of 8 species of gulls, waterfowl staging offshore, and, with lots of luck, a very rare visit from a Snowy Owl that irrupted south from Canadian wintering grounds.