Savoring the sights and sounds of May
(published 5-27-04)

Back in January I wrote that one of the best things about birdwatching is the surprise factor—like “a box of chocolates,” remember? That’s especially true right now, when scores of bird species are migrating through our region. In the backyard or in the woods, it’s the time of year when almost anything is possible.

For birders, it doesn’t get any better than May. I’ve been reminded of that almost every day this month, and I hope you too have been outside enjoying the avian marvels of late spring.

From about mid-April until June I wake up extra early to have my coffee with the birds. On most days I’m on the back patio by 6:00 a.m. The neighbors must think I’m crazy. Or worse, creepy, since I’m always peering through binoculars. But so far nobody has called the police, and I appreciate my neighbors for that. Even more, I appreciate their big, tall trees.

Outside on dawn patrol, I’m scanning everything that grows, looking for movement. And listening, too. I know the regular backyard sounds well enough to recognize when something unusual is flitting around. Then it’s just a matter of finding the vocalist.

This spring I’ve had some exciting first-time visitors: a blue-gray gnatcatcher, a brown thrasher and an indigo bunting. These are common birds—you can find them rather easily any April or May in their usual habitats. But there’s nothing common about them when it comes to my yard. It took almost seven years in this location to finally add them to my coveted yard list, which is now up to 89 species.

As expected, it’s been a terrific month to spot members of the warbler family. I’ve had backyard views of 11 species, including bay-breasted, blackpoll, Cape May and magnolia. Good birds, all of them, and I’m hoping to squeeze out a few more before summer sets in.

On May 8, I took part in the Spring Count, a statewide event that supplies important data to people who study bird population trends. If weather conditions are right, these annual one-day birdathons can produce amazing numbers and variety.

This year I was on a counting team that covered the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. It was a terrific day in the field: We tallied 102 species, including 23 kinds of warblers and five types of vireos. My favorite sightings, however, were birds of prey. Early on we found two young great-horned owls in plain view, snuggled up close on the same branch. Too bad I’m not a photographer! Then, near the end of the day, we watched a peregrine falcon soaring over the Arb’s west side. I see peregrines occasionally in downtown Chicago but this was my first in DuPage County.

On the eve of the Spring Count, or before any May bird outing, I get far too excited for my own good, thinking about the possibilities. I’m like a kid the night before Christmas, dreaming of brightly colored packages—the kind with feathers. Will tomorrow be the day I see my first worm-eating warbler? Or my first Kentucky? Will a new species visit the yard?

First-time sightings are always special, but in May I savor everything. One can never see too many scarlet tanagers or Baltimore orioles or Blackburnian warblers. I “need” these birds every year, and pursuing them is a spring ritual that’s always worth the effort.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

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