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posted: 4/27/2010 12:01 AM

Early mornings are for the birds - really

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So I was up at o'dark thirty, getting breakfast for the Amphibiteen and sending him off to water polo practice. With no one else awake at this ungodly hour, I had plenty of time to contemplate life's imponderables:

• Why do coaches insist on 6 a.m. practices?

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• Will the Breakfast Police bust me for sending my son out with a stale granola bar and an overripe pear?

• What kind of bird is that making all that infernal racket?

The bird, a robin I soon determined, must not have gotten the memo that tweets are limited to 140 characters. For a full 15 minutes he or she twittered away. The song stuck in my head - one of the first times I've successfully matched a bird to its song.

"I find a lot of birds by song," says Linda Padera, an instructor at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. "I enjoy birding by ear."

Padera, along with several other teachers, will lead birding walks this spring around the arboretum at 4100 Route 53.

This is hopeful for me. Somewhat myopic and with the reflexes of an elderly snail, I rarely spot birds with the naked eye. By the time I've untangled the binoculars and focused on the branch, the bird has long left the roost.

Padera had a tip for the binocularly challenged, as well.

"Keep your eyes on the bird," she advises. "It's always good to find the bird first with your eyes and then bring the binoculars up without changing your gaze."

The Chicago area is part of a great flyway for migratory birds, and the arboretum, with its 1,700 acres of trees, wetlands and other habitats, is a birder's paradise.

"We get people from all over with varying degrees of birding experience," Padera says.

Birds come from all over, too. Cattle egrets, smallish white herons found mostly in warmer regions, were seen at the Morton Arboretum last June. Blue grosbeaks, beautiful blue birds with silvery bills, also have been sighted at the Morton Arboretum, although they winter in Central America.

Other avian travelers last summer included the pine warbler, a "very pretty yellow bird that stayed all summer at Frost Hill," recalls Padera, referencing one of the arboretum's evergreen collections. In winter, white-winged crossbills are among several species that periodically come from Canada.

This spring, Padera expects the arboretum to be full of migratory warblers, including the yellow-rumped warbler, one of the first to arrive. Eastern bluebirds, Rufous-sided towhees and eastern meadowlarks are also likely visitors.

While I'd be thrilled to spot these colorful characters, I'd be just as happy to figure out some of the more common birds in my garden. Yet even sparrows come in a host of subtle differences.

"A lot of people think they're just brown," she says. "Field sparrows are kind of pale with a pink bill. They always make me think of spring."

"I happen to love woodpeckers," Padera says. "Maybe because I have a brick house!"

Very prevalent in our area, their familiar knocking on wood is a giveaway to a bird that can actually be quite silent otherwise.

American goldfinches are gorgeous birds that are fun to watch.

"Prior to breeding they'll molt into a stunning yellow plumage," says Padera.

Goldfinches have an undulating style of flying and an intricate song, a portion of which Padera says has been likened to someone calling "potato chips!"

Baltimore orioles build basket-like nests and have a clear, warbling song. House wrens have a beautiful, long song.

Of course, just when you think you might have a handle on all this, Padera reminds us that many birds are mimics. Gray catbirds, northern mockingbirds and some brown thrashers are great mimics. A blue jay can imitate the predatory red-tailed hawk.

Just when I was getting the hang of it.

Thankfully, migratory season continues through May and nesting season goes through the end of May into early June. Still time to catch up with Padera and the other birders.

Of course, they probably get up rather early and I'd have to find a granola bar or mushy pear before I went.

• Cathy Maloney writes for the Morton Arboretum and is not a morning person. She does, however, enjoy early birding walks such as those found on the arboretum's Web site, mortonarb.org.

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