5 Birds to Look for this Spring
Updated: Mar 25, 2019
By Jeremy Schwartz
Spring is springing around Backyard Birding HQ, and that means budding plants, warming temperatures, and…
...wait for it…
Birds! For hardcore birders and casual observers alike, Spring is known far and wide as the best time go out looking for all sorts of feathered friends. Males of so many species are in the finest breeding plumage, filling the morning air with song.
With the mornings filling with the “mate-with-me” chorus of male birds and the trees flitting with color, I wanted to call out five of my favorite bird species Spring in the Pacific Northwest offers up (and just happen to be featured in Backyard Birding). Enjoy!
One of the more common birds around my Pacific Northwest home is the Northern Flicker. The flicker is a type of woodpecker that spends most of its time on the ground looking for insects to eat. They’ll also frequent backyard bird feeders, especially if there’s suet to find there.
Male flickers are notable for their spotted breast, striped back (both over light gray), black bib and red swoosh-shaped marks below the bill. The females are similarly colored but lack the red marks underneath the eye.
Their song is a repetitive and emphatic yuk-yuk-yuk that can go on for 7-8 seconds as males seek partners and establish territory. But their song is just one way males make their presence known this time of year.
For any Pacific Northwest native reading this, the sound of male flickers drumming on metal chimney caps or light poles with their bills is just as much a harbinger of Spring as any birdsong. If you see a medium-sized, spotted bird banging its head against something hollow and metal, it’s not crazy. It’s likely just a male Northern Flicker telling the world he’s here, he’s strong and he would make great babies.
Quick Reference: Northern Flicker
Both males and females sport a spotted breast, horizontally striped back (both over light gray) and black bib.
Male flickers have red swoosh-shaped marks below their eyes
Males attract mates and establish territory through their repetitive yuk-yuk-yuk calls and by drumming on hollow metal objects to make as much noise as possible
Speaking of sounds of Spring, up next is the Red-winged Blackbird. Though not as likely in a suburban backyard as a Northern Flicker, a visit to most any urban wetland or marshy area in Spring will net good looks at this mostly-black bird.
Male red-wings sport all black plumage with flashy red and yellow marks near their shoulders. Think of them as the shoulder decorations on a fancy military jacket (called epaulettes for any word nerds out there). Females are strikingly different, colored instead in streaky shades of brown with a yellowish stain on their faces near their bills.
Spring in the wetlands of the Pacific Northwest would not be complete without the echoing conk-le-REE song belted out by male Red-winged Blackbirds from the tops of cattails and other tall grasses. Seeing males make this sound can be treat as their entire body seems to expand and force the song out like wind from a bellows.
Males are notable also for their aggression in Spring, with research showing that males can spend as much as 25% of their day chasing other males and even larger predators away from their breeding territory. Long story short: males are hard to miss if you’re looking in the right place.
Quick Reference: Red-winged Blackbird
Adult males are all black with red shoulder markers bordered on the bottom in yellowish white
Females are drab, streaky brown all over and resemble large sparrows. Look for large drab birds hanging out near male Red-winged Blackbirds, and you’ve most likely found the females.
Males are notable for their distinctive conk-le-REE song filling marshes and wetlands in Spring
One of the two common hummingbirds in the Pacific Northwest (the other one being the resident Anna’s Hummingbird), Rufous Hummingbirds return to our neck of the woods in mid-Spring after spending our cold months in Mexico and the American Southwest.
The species gets its name from the striking orange and amber feather adorning the males (“rufous” means reddish brown and is often used to describe this color in birds). Females have some orange to them, too, but otherwise are mostly a greenish brown with a white belly. Adult male Rufous hummingbirds will be easy to tell from male Anna’s Hummingbirds, as Anna’s sport bright pinkish-purple feathers on their heads with green bodies.
Rufous Hummingbirds are known to be particularly aggressive at hummingbird feeders, with a single male often “owning” one feeder and scaring away all other comers. Both sexes will also fiercely defend their mating territories and nests from other birds and even small mammals.
Look for them visiting backyards with feeders or hummingbird-friendly flowers. During mating displays, males will make steep dives paired with a quick chu-chu-chu-chu sound to impress watching females.
Quick Reference: Rufous Hummingbird
Adult males are covered nearly head-to-toe in orange/amber feathers with a whitish wash across their chests
Females are greenish-brown with a white belly and an orange tinge to the feathers on the sides of their bodies
Males will make steep dives paired with a quick chu-chu-chu-chu sound to impress watching females
The shy Green Heron holds a special place in my heart as my original “spark bird,” until I did some soul searching to find the bird that truly sparked my interest in these amazing animals (read all about my spark bird journey here). A smaller cousin of the larger and more obvious Great Blue Heron, Green Herons begin their return to the Pacific Northwest in Spring to breed.
Though not particularly rare, Green Herons can be hard to spot thanks to their coloring and tendency to stay tucked alongside grassy stream and lake beds when not hunting or flying. Look for a small, hunched-up bird with a large, dark bill staring into the water along grassy wetland areas and marshes. Their name comes from the dark green feathers covering their backs and wings that will shine emerald when the light hits them. These large green flight feathers are also trimmed in a yellowish-gold. They also sport auburn or chestnut feathers on their breast and have yellow or orange feet and legs.
Green Herons make a dog-like bark or croak when spooked or disturbed, in additional repetitive chirps when on a nest. In flight they’ve been described as “tail-less crows” with slow wing beats and will sometimes extend their necks while aloft. Fun fact: Green Herons are one of the few bird species known to use tools, with individuals observed dropping pieces of food or debris on the surface of the water to attract small fish.
Quick Reference: Green Heron
Adult males and females look the same, with deep emerald green feathers covering their backs and wings and auburn feathers along their breasts
Secretive but relatively common residents of wetlands and marshy areas
Listen for the distinctive dog-like bark or croak of a Green Heron spooked from its hiding place
To be fair, American Robins can be found in many urban areas year-round, but they’re most obvious in Spring as the males fill the mornings, afternoons, and sometimes evenings with their melodic, tumbling whistle.
Most reading this have likely seen an American Robin no matter where you live. They’re so common, in fact, that a often-used way to describe the sizes of other birds is to compare them to robins. They’re sort of like the Rhode Island of birds that way.
Just like Mallards, though, they shouldn’t be overlooked because of their ubiquity. American Robins are a study in contrasts, with light gray backs flowing into a darker head with a bright yellow bill. Then there’s the bright orange breast, standing out as they pause and stand tall between quick jogs along lawns, fields and other open areas. They can be seen in the dozens perched in fruiting trees or on large grassy expanses hunting for worms and other invertebrates. Robins make a variety of sounds in addition to their most obvious cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up song, including a quick laugh-like chortle and single chuck note.
Come Springtime, male robins not only sing their hearts out but become fierce defenders of their territory. Skirmishes between males are something to see, as two males meet and fly straight up into the air as they tussle with their feet for a few seconds before one invariably chases the other away in the blink of an eye. Males are so aggressive that they’re known to attack their own reflections in the windows of buildings or cars.
Quick Reference: American Robin
Adults sport a bright orange breast and a gray back, flowing into a darker head and a bright yellow bill
Find them in most any urban park or grassy area hunting for worms between quick jogs
Listen for the male’s cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up morning song