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Birding Through the Seasons - March

The longer day length, increasing since December 22, along with the increasing warmth of the sun as it rises higher each day above the horizon, begins to free ponds and lakes from their bounds of ice. This increase in day length and warmth also begins to foster nesting urges in permanent residents, those birds that remain in the state year round, such as crows, starlings, and cardinals. The thawing of water on rivers and lakes brings an increase in waterfowl, marking a peak in migration for most species by mid-March.

In addition to waterfowl, other birds are migrating back to Pennsylvania in this month. More woodcocks have arrived in early March, adding to the early arrivals in February. The chorus of spring peepers and wood frogs often accompany the call of the wood-cock by the month's end. A few early raptors such as the Northern Harrier and Red-tailed Hawk are also beginning to migrate through in mid-March searching for fields with rodents. Robins are widespread and abundant by the second or third week, starting to establish territories. The arrival of robins, to many people, is one of the first signs of the coming spring. Robins begin singing in earnest in March.

One of the most iconic signs of spring is the return of the backyard Eastern Phoebe, wagging its tail and searching for flying insects as soon as they are available. Another insect-eating migrant, the nest box-using Tree Swallow also often arrive in early March and will seek out "bluebird boxes" for overnight roost sites. Bird houses for Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, Purple Martins, House Wrens, and other cavity-nesting songbirds should be up by now.

Hardy birds that breed in northern Canada begin to leave, including the Rough-legged Hawk, Short-eared Owl, Rusty Blackbird, and Snow Bunting. Huge flocks of Common Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Brown-headed Cowbirds blacken the trees and fields by mid-month.

Great-horned Owls can have young in their nest by the end of March. As ice melts and spring warm regains control, lakes and ponds may be alive with life. Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area provides unprecedented activity. Many other game lands offer great opportunities for birdwatching as the lakes, ponds, swamps, and meadows thaw out an allow birds to forage.

Dan Brauning
Pennsylvania Game Commission