10 birds to look for as spring creeps in

A look at some of our feathered friends you may start seeing return, if you haven't already



What do you look for as an early sign of spring? Crocuses and daffodils pushing up through the soil? The call of a cardinal calling out for a mate? A few more minutes of sunlight each day?

Many migratory birds give us hope that spring is near when they arrive back on their breeding grounds even before winter has given its last hurrah. In February and early March they fly in, ready to get back to the business of breeding and nesting.

Among these birds are some that we consider harbingers of spring and some that are a lesser-known sign of the season. Not all will stick around until fall. Some are just passing through or maybe taking a break to refuel before continuing their northward journey.

Take a look at these birds you may spy in the sky or your yard soon if you haven’t already.

American robin

An american robin perched on a branch

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Robins don’t disappear entirely for winter, but this is about the time of year when we start to see them popping up where we expect to see them — our yards. Some of our local robins do migrate south for winter, but others stick around all year and still others migrate to Illinois from points north, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources

Those that migrate can start arriving back as early as January. Those that overwinter here often flock together in forests, so we don’t see them as often throughout the colder months.

About this time is typically when we still start seeing them in the grass and maybe even feasting on an earthworm on a warm day.

American white pelicans

American white pelicans on the Des Plaines River

(Photo by Chad Merda)

Pelicans are among the most anticipated arrivals twice each year as they pass through on their migrations to and from their breeding grounds in the northern plains and parts of Canada and their wintering grounds along the Gulf of Mexico, IDNR reports. They are usually seen locally between mid-March and mid-May and again between September and November, and we’ve already seen some making pitstops locally so far this year.

The best place to see these big birds locally is at McKinley Woods — Kerry Sheridan Grove, but they are also sometimes spotted at Rock Run Rookery and Lake Renwick Preserve.

Common loon

A common loon floating on the water

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Common loons are most often seen in northern Will County on their biannual migrations, and we can usually expect to begin seeing them in March or early April, according to the IDNR. A small number of loons may spend time here in the winter or even during summer, but typically we only see them during migration season.

The loons breed in the northern United States and Canada, and after breeding season they will travel through our area in October on their way to their wintering grounds along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the Gulf of Mexico. Within the preserves, they are sometimes seen at Whalon Lake, Rock Run Rookery and Monee Reservoir.

Eastern bluebird

An eastern bluebird perched in a tree

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Bluebirds are year-round residents of southern Illinois and points south, but here in northern Illinois they are migrants, traveling south for the winter. They are among our earliest arriving birds each spring, often spotted as early as February, IDNR reports. They will begin their journey south again in September.

Bluebirds begin nesting in April. They are cavity nesters and will use old woodpecker holes or other holes in trees, but they will also take advantage of nesting boxes. If you live near their preferred habitat — open grasslands — you might just attract a pair if you put out a nesting box.

Greater white-fronted goose

Greater white-fronted geese on the ground

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Most greater white-fronted geese nest in the Arctic and winter along coastal Louisiana, Texas and Mexico, so we usually see them passing through Illinois, although a few may nest here, according to IDNR. Look for them early in the migration season, beginning in February, and continuing through May. Fall migration occurs from September to November.

Greater white-fronted geese can be confused with graylag geese, but graylag geese are typically domesticated in most parts of the United States. If you’re looking for a white-fronted goose, look closely at flocks of Canada geese. They often congregate with both Canada geese and snow geese, according to Cornell Lab.

Northern pintail

A northern pintail flies with its wings outstretched

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Northern pintails are often among the first migrants passing through each year because they are among the first to nest when they reach their breeding grounds, nesting as soon as the ice thaws, according to the Cornell Lab. In Illinois, they will begin arriving as early as February, and they may start making their visits on their return trip south as early as July.

Look for these ducks in lakes, reservoirs, marshes, wetlands and even agricultural fields. They are omnivores and will eat aquatic insects, snails and crustaceans, as well as grain and seed they find in fields.

Red-winged blackbird

A red-winged blackbird spreads its wings

(Photo by Anthony Schalk)

The return of noisy red-winged blackbirds is often considered one of the first signs of spring, and we can sometimes see them as early as late January, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Males, with the trademark red wing patches, arrive first, and females will follow in March or April.

While red-winged blackbirds don’t stay in northern Illinois all year, some of the birds do winter in central and southern Illinois. Once February rolls around, start listening for their familiar “conk-la-ree” call as a sign that spring is imminent.

Sandhill crane

A sandhill crane comes in for a landing

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Sandhill cranes are another bird people get excited about seeing overhead. While a small number of sandhills do breed in northern Illinois, the vast majority of the birds we see here are just passing through on migration. They will start passing through as early as late February, and oftentimes they are doing just that — flying overhead without even landing in Illinois, IDNR reports.

Spring migration will continue through mid-April, and then they will pass through again in fall, usually between mid-September and mid-November, although sometimes as late as December. Even though we don’t always get a good look at these birds as they fly overhead, keep your ears tuned for their distinctive bugling call, which can be heard from as far as 2½ miles away.

Turkey vulture

A turkey vulture eats a fish

(Photo courtesy of Kayla Castellanos)

Our local turkey vulture population is migratory, and they are among the first birds to arrive back each year, often as early as February, IDNR reports. Farther south, even as close as southern Illinois, the vultures will stay on their range year-round.

Turkey vultures in the eastern United States do not migrate as far as those that live in the West. Most of the eastern birds will journey to coastal areas from North Carolina on south to Louisiana. They arrive back on their breeding grounds in late winter or early spring, and fall migration will peak in October.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker 

A yellow-bellied sapsucker pecks at a tree

(Photo via Shutterstock)

The yellow-bellied sapsucker is the only woodpecker we see in Illinois that does not have some part of its population present all year, according to Wildlife Illinois. They typically begin passing through our area in March, with these woodpeckers spotted throughout April and May as well. In the fall, they will pass through during September and October on their trip south.

Like many woodpeckers, sapsuckers eat insects, but their primary food source is, as their name implies, sap, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. To get at the sap in trees, they drill small holes, called sap wells. They often create these wells in an organized fashion, making neat rows of small holes.

(Lead image of an American white pelican via Shutterstock)

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