Words on Birds: Heavy rains in May bring surprise avian visitors to local backyards

  • At least 30 birders witnessed this worm-eating warbler at Elsen's Hill in Winfield. The species, while not colorful, is a rare visitor to northern Illinois.

    At least 30 birders witnessed this worm-eating warbler at Elsen's Hill in Winfield. The species, while not colorful, is a rare visitor to northern Illinois. Courtesy of Andrew Steinmann

 
 
Updated 6/23/2020 10:31 AM

Almost three inches of hard rain can make a mess of a newly mulched landscape. I saw this when stepping into my backyard on May 15. But mulch wasn't the only thing that migrated during the night. The yard was messy with warblers, too.

You could feel it. Something special was happening -- in my yard, on my block and throughout the entire region, I'd find out later. The heavy storms had triggered an avian fallout.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Cleaning up the lawn could wait. I'd been waiting for this all spring. Stay-at-home order? No problem!

The first big surprise was a northern waterthrush, a streaky, ground-loving member of the warbler family. My little patch of Glen Ellyn offers nothing this bird typically prefers. In the prime of spring migration, however, almost anything is possible.

The waterthrush joined my all-time yard list as species No. 119.

In late May, with spring migration winding down, watchers enjoyed a singing male Kentucky warbler at Greene Valley Forest Preserve in Naperville.
In late May, with spring migration winding down, watchers enjoyed a singing male Kentucky warbler at Greene Valley Forest Preserve in Naperville. - Courtesy of Matthew Studebaker

Flashier warblers were all around: Blackburnian, chestnut-sided, bay-breasted, pine, Cape May and American redstart.

Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks at the feeders would be all-day companions.

An ovenbird joined the party, another terrestrial warbler named for its Dutch oven-shaped nest. It walks like a miniature chicken.

A great-crested flycatcher called "wheep!" from above as a yellow-throated vireo foraged nearby.

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Higher still, chimney swifts glided on stiff wings, adding their chittering notes to the morning's natural soundtrack. (Conditions were far too wet, fortunately, for the neighborhood landscape crews to power up their lawn mowers and leaf blowers.)

A nice thrush triple-crown featured gray-cheeked, Swainson's, and veery. Robins are thrushes, too, so make that a grand slam.

The sparrow family, not to be unrepresented, contributed a Lincoln's -- by no means a bird I see every year in the yard.

What else would drop from the sky?

At 9 a.m., my heart almost stopped when a worm-eating warbler appeared in the lilac bush -- only the second one I'd ever seen. No. 120!

Sharing my backyard "wormie" with friends would have added to the experience. It's a coveted, hard-to-find species in northern Illinois. Alas, in a few minutes my special visitor moved on.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Thrill-seeking birders willing to leave home did have a chance to see a worm-eating warbler at two locations on May 3: Elsen's Hill, part of the West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve in Winfield, and Les Arends Forest Preserve in Batavia.

A great-crested flycatcher was among 47 bird species spotted around the author's yard and neighborhood on May 15, a day when birders throughout the region enjoyed fallout conditions.
A great-crested flycatcher was among 47 bird species spotted around the author's yard and neighborhood on May 15, a day when birders throughout the region enjoyed fallout conditions. - Courtesy of Jackie Bowman

A couple of even rarer warblers made appearances this spring.

Townsend's warbler, a western species, turned up at Deer Grove Forest Preserve in Cook County on April 16, discovered by Heidi Tarasiuk. The bird stayed for 10 days, enabling dozens of watchers to extend their life lists.

On May 18, a Kirtland's warbler surprised a birding group at Bennett Park in Geneva. Reported by Bob Andrini, possibly the first Kirtland's ever found in Kane County.

Scattered reports of cerulean, Connecticut, hooded, Kentucky, and yellow-throated warblers also kept local birders on the go -- with proper social distancing, of course.

The Kentucky warbler at Greene Valley Forest Preserve (Naperville) on May 24 was my lifer, ending a long quest filled with rotten luck and near misses. Mike Madsen made the initial find, but it was Joan Campbell who alerted me to the opportunity. I owe her a nice bottle of wine.

Mostly I stayed home this spring, watching my backyard like a hungry Cooper's Hawk. In fact, if not for COVID-19, I'd have been at work on that Freaky Friday fallout and missed a lot of the show. It was not a morning-only phenomenon; warblers and other newly arrived migrants were hopping around in the trees all day.

By sunset, I'd counted 47 species, six more than my previous one-day best. Fifteen of the 47 were warblers, two of which were first-time visitors during my running yard watch of 23 years.

Coincidentally, I'd agreed to do a Zoom interview that day with Naperville Community Television for a story on backyard birding during the pandemic. At noon, I calmed down enough to speak with the reporter, Aysha Househ, who asked, "What do you like most about bird-watching?"

Good question! I could have answered it 10 different ways, but with that worm-eating warbler fresh on my mind I talked about the surprises that birding brings, and how you never know what might pop into view.

Every day, there's always the chance of seeing something remarkable. Even in your backyard.

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

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