Hail to the kinglets and other April birds
(published 4-3-08)

T.S. Eliot called April “the cruelest month.” I guess he wasn’t a birder.

I love this time of year. The days are getting longer and that means more time to watch birds. Best of all, there’s more to see! Look carefully and you may spot some interesting birds right in your backyard—migrating species that we haven’t seen since fall, or maybe since April of 2007.

Let’s start with the kinglets—golden-crowned and ruby-crowned. These tiny, aptly named birds seem propelled by nervous energy. They’re always in motion, flicking their wings and sometimes hovering as they feed. Golden-crowns appear in our region first, and of the two kinglet species these tend to be the least common in my yard. Some Aprils I don’t see them at all. By mid-month they are gone, off to their North Woods breeding grounds.

Ruby-crowned kinglets are on a slightly later schedule. They arrive in mid-April and often stay into early May. It’s always a challenge to see the male’s scarlet tuft, which is usually concealed.

There are many more April specialties to watch for. Some, like the kinglets, are just passing through. See them now or your next good chance will be in the fall. Fox sparrow, winter wren, brown creeper, hermit thrush and yellow-bellied sapsucker, for instance.

My yard records include about a dozen one-time sightings, and two of them—blue-gray gnatcatcher and Eastern towhee—are generally April-arriving species. Although these birds nest in our region, this month may be the best opportunity to spot them in backyard habitats.

Gnatcatchers like to forage high in trees, moving about quickly like the kinglets. Their white eye-rings and extra-long tails are distinctive. Seeing these features on distant birds can be tough, but at least in April the trees are still mostly bare. Something else in our favor is that the seasonal gnatcatcher population is said to be growing in the Midwest.

Towhees are large members of the sparrow family, which explains why they’re normally seen on the ground scratching for food. The one that visited my yard, a male, was in the grass below my feeders. That was surprising since towhees are typically more secretive. This one wasn’t shy at all, and even performed its sweet “drink your tea” song.

To see even more April species, be sure to take a few walks in the parks and forest preserves. A birding hot spot on my agenda is Nelson Lake Marsh in Batavia. A flock of migrating American white pelicans has visited the Kane County preserve in early April for the past five years. Hopefully, this will make six.

Finally, while nothing beats actual birding, one of my favorite April rituals is to pop “Watching Warblers” into the VCR. It’s a beautifully made film that documents by video and sound all 39 warbler species in the Eastern United States. I can’t think of a better way to prepare for the color and excitement that awaits us in May, when spring migration reaches its peak. The warblers are coming, and so are Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers and indigo buntings.

Come to think of it, that’s another thing I like about April—the anticipation. The birding is great now, but the best is yet to come.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.