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posted: 4/2/2012 11:28 AM

April is the new May for birders

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  • Colorful migrants, like this magnolia warbler, are ticketed for early arrival this spring.

      Colorful migrants, like this magnolia warbler, are ticketed for early arrival this spring.
    Courtesy Sue Wagoner

  • Birders can expect full foliage conditions by the start of May, making bird spotting more difficult. The best days of spring migration will likely occur in April.

      Birders can expect full foliage conditions by the start of May, making bird spotting more difficult. The best days of spring migration will likely occur in April.
    Courtesy Jeff Reiter

 
 

There is a popular spring birding festival in northwest Ohio called The Biggest Week in American Birding. This year's dates are May 4-13, which makes it a really big week, indeed.

In May, birders will apply any reason they can to get outside. Create a nine-day week? No problem. Call in sick? Good idea. Go "out to lunch" at the nearest forest preserve? Absolutely!

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Every day is precious during spring migration. There is much to see and the daily bird menu is always changing. The saying "So many birds, so little time" expresses both the joy and urgency of birding, especially in May.

Wait a minute -- make that April.

The mild winter and incredibly warm March changed everything. This year, April is the new May.

Daffodils, magnolias and forsythia were exploding on St. Patrick's Day. Even before that, American white pelicans were staging at Nelson Lake Marsh in Batavia, three weeks before their usual appearance. Other typical "April birds" such as kinglets, sapsuckers and brown thrashers arrived early as well.

Most shocking was a ruby-throated hummingbird spotted March 21 at Fullersburg Woods in Oak Brook. In northern Illinois, hummingbird sightings in March were unprecedented until this year.

In a year when noisy flocks of sandhill cranes were swirling overhead in January and February, I guess nothing should be all that surprising. Not even the mockingbird that spent the whole winter at a Binny's Beverage Depot parking lot in Chicago.

Weather always affects our birding, of course, but this year is extreme. We'll see many migratory species this month that usually don't appear until May, including warblers. Flycatchers, orioles, tanagers and vireos, too.

Birding in May will still be good, but probably not great as we've come to expect. The biggest issue will be visibility. Usually it's mid-May when the trees leaf out and warbler-watching becomes more challenging. This year, the foliage will be quite full before Cinco de Mayo, and by then many of the northern nesters will have already passed through our region.

To be safe, assume the birds are already here. Don't wait until May to go find your first Blackburnian warbler of the season, or your first scarlet tanager. Place your hummingbird feeder now; it felt crazy but I put mine out on March 24.

If you can, spend a little time on your back porch in the morning, watching and listening. Be ready for some surprises.

Consider ramping up your field trip participation, too. For ideas, check the websites of the DuPage Birding Club and Kane County Audubon. Both clubs welcome nonmembers on their walks.

Fullersburg Woods Nature Center offers walks every Friday from April 13-June 13. Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn will sponsor walks on Tuesdays starting April 17-May 22.

Spring is indeed a fun time to be outside with others who share a passion for birds and with those who are just starting out and seeing spectacular birds for the first time.

Birding with beginners is the best. I love seeing them bag "lifers" all morning long, filling their optics with dazzlers like indigo bunting, rose-breasted grosbeak and Baltimore oriole. What's common and what's not really doesn't matter to a new birder -- it's all about the colors! Their enthusiasm is contagious.

But like health clubs in January, spring field trips do attract crowds. Case in point: 74 birders turned out for the March outing at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. That's a lot of folks, and more eyes don't necessarily mean more sightings. Fortunately, this time of year, even a large group can see a nice variety of birds.

If you can, show up early. Sometimes the best birds of the day are spotted before the walk even begins. From the parking lot no less. In fact, at some places it's possible to see a lot of species without ever losing sight of your car. (Elsen's Hill in Winfield, for example.)

This brings to mind one last bit of advice you've probably heard before: slow down. Find a good spot, perhaps near some water, and let the birds come to you. Staying put is good strategy, especially during spring migration when the birds are plentiful and focused on feeding. It promotes good listening, too.

So get out there and make like a statue. No need to wait. We can all just pretend it's May.

• Jeff Reiter's column appears monthly in the Daily Herald. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.

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