Words on Birds: Spring migration, travels and two great books fill a memorable May

I’m a little late with this column and the best excuse I can give is spring migration. I’ve been birding, OK? Now, on a rainy day before Memorial Day, I’m finally collecting my thoughts about an eventful May, the month that watchers hate to see end.

Two books also kept me from my writing table. First came “The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird,” a 400-pager by Jack E. Davis, a Pulitzer Prize winner.

The Bald Eagle is quite the recovery story, a great victory for conservation. Davis covers that, of course, and tons of other information. Benjamin Franklin, I learned, did not formally propose the Wild Turkey as our national bird, and even today the Bald Eagle does not officially hold that title.

Bald Eagle is gaining population in northern Illinois. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 and earlier protective measures helped save the eagle from potential extinction. Courtesy of Sid Padgaonkar

My first eagle sighting in the wild came in South Carolina in 1996. I’ll never forget it. Now we see Bald Eagles regularly in the Chicago region. Amazing! I even have the species on my yard list (just once, a distant flyover).

Every sighting is special. Bald Eagle, for most of us, is not an everyday bird.

On Mother’s Day, our family was dining at Village Links in Glen Ellyn when an adult eagle cruised low across the 18th fairway. The bird then put on a show, circling over the patio for all to see.

An immature Bald Eagle — just as large but without the white head and tail — visited Cantigny Golf in Wheaton during the Spring Bird Count on May 4, wowing our group as it sparred with a pesky Red-tailed Hawk.

Eagles came back from the brink of extinction. The Passenger Pigeon wasn’t so lucky.

Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, died in 1914 and now resides at the Smithsonian. Her species was driven extinct mainly by habitat destruction and overhunting. Courtesy of Jeff Reiter

Exactly 10 years ago we were commemorating the 100th anniversary of the last Passenger Pigeon on earth. Her name was Martha, and today she’s inside a glass display case at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. I visited her in April.

Seeing Martha is both a sad and inspiring experience. She is a star, an icon, the last of her kind. How could the most abundant bird species on earth be made extinct in only 50 years? It’s true: In 1850, up to 5 billion pigeons rules the skies; by 1900, virtually none.

I knew a few things but needed more. “A Message from Martha,” by Mark Avery, provided the answers. The 2014 book had somehow eluded me until now — 110 years after Martha’s lonely death at the Cincinnati Zoo. Avery, a Brit, takes readers along on a Passenger Pigeon road trip in telling a fascinating story that every birder should know.

Spring birding was ramping up when I returned from Washington, with Martha still on my mind. The migration started early, confirmed by a backyard hummingbird on April 30, a week sooner than usual. For once my nectar feeder was ready, but she zipped right by.

A Baltimore Oriole discovered the sweet treat instead, prompting me to lay out the grape jelly. Wouldn’t you know, the jelly went untouched all month. Maybe it was the brand. I have a friend who swears that orioles only like Welch’s.

Early-morning backyard birding was productive. MTVs (most-treasured visitors) were Red-headed Woodpecker, Common Yellowthroat, and Wilson’s Warbler. None were first-time guests but all three were coffee spillers. Male Scarlet Tanagers dazzled me two days in a row.

Another fine moment came while jogging on the Illinois Prairie Path between Glen Ellyn and Lombard. Not far off I heard a singing Wood Thrush, a declining species with a heavenly voice. I floated on air for the next mile.

This Black-tailed Gull in Waukegan, a rare visitor, delivered a thrilling end to May for the birding community. Courtesy of Matt Zuro

Picking the region’s bird of the month is easy: Black-tailed Gull, spotted May 29 at Waukegan Beach by Matt Tobin. Hundreds of birders got a look, a lifer for most.

Other notables included Kirtland’s Warbler at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary in Chicago; Prairie Warbler at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien; and Black-necked Stilt at both Springbrook Prairie in Naperville and Muirhead Springs in Kane County. In April, a Sage Thrasher thrilled birders at McKee Marsh in Warrenville.

Wisconsin tempted Illinois birders with two remarkable first state records, Varied Bunting and Bar-tailed Godwit. The bunting was in Grafton, just north of Milwaukee; the godwit turned up near Hartford.

I attended my fourth Indiana Dunes Birding Festival May 17-19. Attendance hit 750 for the festival’s 10th anniversary, a new record. I go for a lot of reasons, and one is Cerulean Warbler. Indiana Dunes State Park is a great place for it — you almost can’t miss, and I didn’t. The festival’s surprise bird was Tricolored Heron, one of 189 species recorded.

On the last day of the fest, I birded Miller Woods in Gary, a wonderful preserve near Lake Michigan, inside the national park. I’d never been and will surely go back. Highlights included more Red-headed Woodpeckers than we could count, a wailing Pied-billed Grebe in courtship mode, and a handsome lizard that our excellent guide Michael Topp identified as a Six-lined Racerunner.

Chicago Birding Alliance (formerly Chicago Audubon) exhibited at the festival marketplace, rallying support for new regulations that will help make Chicago safer for migrating birds. It also dropped a news bomb: Chicago, finally, is getting a birding festival of its own. CBA is partnering with several other birding organizations to stage the inaugural Urban Birding Festival, Sept. 14-15. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum will be home base.

For now, it’s all about the red-eyed bugs, and that’s OK. Turns out the cicadas are saving me money. They’re good eating! For the birds, I mean. I haven’t refilled my sunflower feeder in 10 days.

• Reiter’s column appears regularly in Neighbor. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.

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