Get your feeders ready: COVID-19 doesn't cancel spring bird migration

  • The large bill identifies this male rose-breasted grosbeak as a seed eater. Feeders stocked with black-oil sunflower seeds may attract this species in the spring.

    The large bill identifies this male rose-breasted grosbeak as a seed eater. Feeders stocked with black-oil sunflower seeds may attract this species in the spring. Courtesy of Jeff Reiter

 
 
Posted4/16/2020 6:00 AM

In terms of everyday life, what have you missed most during the COVID-19 crisis?

My selfish answer would be sports on TV. In particular, the start of the baseball season and The Masters and PGA golf tournaments.

 

Oh, yeah, I watch more than birds.

Of course, staying healthy and looking out for one another is what matters most. I'm thankful that my family is fine so far, including my parents, both in their 90s.

I'm also glad the shutdown didn't begin in December or January. Can you imagine?

For birders, the silver lining in all this is the time of year. We're allowed to go outside you know, and every day it gets better -- the weather, the scenery and the birds.

A walk around the block or some time on the back patio is never more interesting than in April and May. Each day is full of potential.

"One of the great things about the spring migration is that it brings the birds to you -- you don't have to necessarily go out looking for them," said Jim Herkert, executive director of Illinois Audubon Society.

"A good variety of migrants can usually be found in most yards and neighborhoods."

This year, most of us have more time to enjoy the spectacle. I don't mind working from home, especially now!

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My feeders are clean and full, with a few handfuls of mixed seed tossed on the ground. The hummingbird feeder is juiced up, oriole banquet set, wren houses hung. Other years I might be a week or two late getting things ready. In 2020, no excuses.

This would be a fine time to begin a yard list if you don't already have one. Keep track of everything you see in your yard, in your neighbor's yard, flying over. Be observant and the list will expand quickly.

In 2005, my yard hosted 41 species on May 15, and a few surely went undetected.

If you already keep a list, this is your chance to grow it. I have a regular yard surrounded by other houses. My running count is 118 species. In a good year, I'll add one or two new ones.

This spring I'm targeting northern waterthrush, a type of warbler, and perhaps an orchard oriole or summer tanager.

I can dream. Looking skyward, I wish for American white pelican and bald eagle.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

For migrating songbirds, it's best to get up early. I like to be on the patio, with coffee, by 6 a.m. On a calm, clear morning in May, the next two hours can be magical. I'm mostly watching for movement in the trees and shrubs. The warblers, vireos, tanagers and other long-distance migrants are hungry and searching for insects.

Baltimore orioles bring a shock of color to our backyards. Try setting out orange halves and grape jelly to bring them close. Nectar feeders designed for orioles are effective, too.
Baltimore orioles bring a shock of color to our backyards. Try setting out orange halves and grape jelly to bring them close. Nectar feeders designed for orioles are effective, too. - Courtesy of Jeff Reiter

If you dispense sunflower seeds, watch for a rose-breasted grosbeak. It's one of the few migratory songbirds that regularly visits feeders, and it's a real beauty, too. Baltimore orioles and gray catbirds also accept handouts, but not seeds. They crave oranges, nectar and grape jelly.

Migrating species arrive in our region on different schedules. Knowing what birds to watch for and when to expect them is helpful.

To monitor daily movements, check out Illinois Audubon Society's Spring Migration Dashboard (illinoisaudubon.org). The posted information, based on eBird data, includes a running count of Illinois species reported in 2020.

If the printed page is more your style, I recommend Kenn Kaufman's "A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration." It's new, and it's the perfect book for now.

I'm content with the backyard being my designated patch this spring. Birding it never gets old for me. Still, I will miss attending such rites of spring as the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, the Birdwatching Open at Cantigny Golf and the DuPage Birding Club's Spring Bird Count. I'm expecting all three to be canceled.

But spring migration marches on, and we're fortunate that birding from home is easy, and often highly rewarding. The birds know nothing about the tragic virus down below. They are with us now or on their way, and there's no stopping them.

Be ready, enjoy the show and please remember to bird responsibly if you venture out.

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

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