Outer Banks Birding: March kicks off spring migration

By on March 10, 2019

Osprey with prey (Jeff Lewis)

March is a turnover month for birds on the Outer Banks. We witness the lingering departure of our many winter residents and the beginning of the arrival of our breeding migrants from the south.

On the oceanfront, winter is very obviously still in control. The water remains frigid, the wind howls, and those hardy Northern Gannets continue to plunge for baitfish (look for whales in these situations).

Red-throated Loons, Common Loons, Horned Grebes and Red-breasted Mergansers dive for fish. Flocks of Black and Surf Scoters, with an occasional White-winged Scoter thrown in, can be seen, either feeding or migrating north. Thousands of gulls, including many Bonaparte’s Gulls, as well as Forster’s Terns, continue to fill the air while they scan the ocean’s surface for tidbits of food.

Continue to look for Little Gull, Black-headed Gull, and Black-legged Kittiwake, especially early in the month. Cormorants remain plentiful, especially in the vicinity of the inlets, while Brown Pelican numbers swell.

You may even spot a newly arrived Royal Tern this month. They will be nesting soon, on spoil islands in the sound.

As the breeding season approaches, most of our waterfowl species are packing their bags to leave. At Pea Island, many ducks, as well as most swans and geese, will depart this month. The impoundments actually become pretty devoid of birds in March. How considerate of them to give us a chance to prepare our taxes!

A few wintering shorebirds remain in place in March; spring migration doesn’t really get started in earnest for these long-distance travelers until April. Sanderlings and Willets remain prominent on the beach and several shorebird species can still be found in our local impoundments; be patient and in several weeks you will see new species migrating through.

This month you are likely to see signs of Killdeer courtship and nesting in appropriate habitats: parking lots and road shoulders, rock gardens and fields. If you see a Killdeer performing the old “broken wing routine,” then you’re near a nest — too near, probably!

For what it’s worth, human-designated spring begins on March 20, and the most obvious signs of spring, bird-wise, here on the coast, are the return of Ospreys, Laughing Gulls, and Fish Crows, three noisy species.

Purple Martins are a traditional sign of spring, too, although April seems to usher them in, in greater numbers than does March. Robins a sign of spring? Forget about it! We have greater numbers here during winter than any other time of year.

Ospreys are very popular, being a large and easy-to-see species. Their primary nesting sites, historically in dead trees, but currently on man-made platforms, are usually located in highly visible areas, along our waterways and sounds, and often near homes, which helps make these birds so popular. And they are pretty incredible birds, too: large, handsome, vocal and fun to watch, especially while fishing (you or the bird)! An Osprey soars high over the water, seeking fish.

When potential prey is located, the fish-hawk hovers, pinpoints the prey, accounts for the speed and depth of the fish, plus the refraction on the water surface, and then drops out of the sky and plunges hard into the water, talons first!

If the aim is true and the catch is made, the osprey lifts its catch out of the water, gives a big shake, to rid itself of excess water (weight) and flies to a nearby perch to feed. While in flight, the big raptor turns the fish so that it is headfirst and less wind-resistant. Amazing!

In wooded habitats, especially large, unspoiled tracts like those found in Nags Head Woods and especially on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, look for the first returning Neotropical wood-warblers this month.

Blue-gray gnatcatchers are found in wooded areas (Jeff Lewis)

Male Yellow-throated, Black-throated Green and Black-and-white Warblers begin to stake out territories and sing, from high in the treetops. They are much easier heard than seen! In low, often wet, dense cover, Common Yellowthroats increase in numbers. Listen for their “wichity, wichity” song and look for a small yellow bird wearing a black mask. By now, our year-round Pine Warblers have been singing in the pines for several weeks.

Birders, be patient — April will see a whole slew of warblers return to nest!

Another early returning passerine to look for in the woods is the feisty Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. These tiny birds are blue-gray (of course), have a long tail with white outer tail feathers and give a twangy, nasal, high-pitched call. Gnatcatchers are usually seen fairly low in deciduous trees, which is where they build their tiny, cup-like nests.

One more early spring migrant is the White-eyed Vireo. These olive-green, yellow and white birds prefer low, thick habitat. This is another bird that is easier to hear than see. Although the males will often sing from 15 or 20 feet high, in a large shrub or small tree, and for long periods of time, it often takes a lot of patience to see him, being a rather sedate bird.

Soon-to-leave woodland birds that you are fairly likely to run into include: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Brown Creeper, Blue-headed Vireo, Winter Wren, and Hermit Thrush. The songs of the last two are absolutely amazing, the wren’s being fast and bubbly and the thrush’s sounding flute-like and ethereal. Consult a good field guide and good luck!

Look for Tree Swallows and Barn Swallows to arrive this month. If you have a bluebird house in place, you may have Tree Swallows competing with the Eastern Bluebirds for use of the box. Barn Swallows don’t compete — they nest in barns and other small structures, and especially under sound-side docks and piers.

Search high for Yellow-throated warblers staking out their territory with their song (Jeff Lewis)

In backyards, most of our year-round birds will be showing signs of breeding: singing, courting and looking for nesting sites. Depending upon your habitat, Chickadees, Titmice, Cardinals, Robins, Brown Thrashers, Mockingbirds, Catbirds, Bluebirds and Carolina Wrens should be very active and vocal this month.

One of the best things about March, for us working stiffs, is that the days are getting longer, so there’s more time to go birding! See you in the field!

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